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58th London Film Festival Review: The Duke of Burgundy

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Director/Writer: Peter Strickland

Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Eugenia Caruso

Synopsis: A lesbian couple, who experiment with sado-masochistic role playing, begin to find cracks in their relationship.

If anything is to be taken from The Duke of Burgundy – Peter Strickland’s third feature – it is that the British director is quickly becoming the new Roman Polanski. He is not copying the Chinatown director’s style, but using similar techniques to bring forth a series of unsettling films. It was obvious how Berberian Sound Studio was a child of Dario Argento, yet seeing his latest film, and looking back, Polanski and his intriguing foreplay with tension has been Strickland’s backbone all along. Strickland will, imaginably, continue to make similar films and divide his audience, making The Duke of Burgundy another cult favourite.

Some may come to argue that this is a feminist film, charged by two terrific lead performances, with no men (or any need of men) throughout the film. The film has the power to spread among circles, though it’ll never be a huge crowd-pleaser. For one, the story is mysterious and deftly playful, never truly wanting to illuminate the bigger picture. We are privy to a very small setting, a private performance of two sexually-charged females. As we continue through the film, we start to realise that the passion is lagging for one side, and we can never imagine what will happen.

The curiosity and tension that drives Strickland’s script is monotonous, playing out over and over again like Evelyn and Cynthia’s fantasy.  Yes, it is a study in the longevity of a relationship and so that comes at a price. To stay focused and engaged is a tricky part of being Burgundy’s viewer. We near the end and reality and normality break-down, giving us a huge charge – the orgasm, if you will, of the film’s 45 minute foreplay. It is a massive change in tone, giving those weary audience members a jolt to the proceedings. Whether this satisfies or not is entirely based on your experience of the film. It does, however, come across as a terrific work of art – showing off Strickland’s artistic, colourful side. His talent for visceral thrills is unlike any other right now, and he uses that skill selectively.

The central performances from Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are amazing, with each giving their all to a very intimate story. It promotes the low-key styles of 70s filmmaking and acting, a style becoming lost in 21st Century cinema. There is a humour to Evelyn and Cynthia’s S&M personas, bizarre and refreshing for current cinema. The two actresses undertake their respective roles with such shrewdness; you cannot help but love them (even if you’re ever so confused by them).

With Ben Wheatley, Richard Ayoade and Peter Strickland evoking older styles, we have a lot to love about contemporary British filmmaking. The Duke of Burgundy may not be to everyone’s tastes as it is a demanding and off-key feature, though its part-composed, part-psychedelic flavouring gives it a distinctiveness you should feel inquisitive about.

3-out-of-5

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