James Moules was captivated by this dark parable of sex and love
The Duke of Burgundy is the sort of movie that many will hate for the exact same reasons that many will love it. It’s unabashed oddness will undoubtedly alienate it to many, and more than a few people will leave the cinema feeling a certain emptiness—or, at the very least, indifference—to this complex sexual meta-drama. Others will adore it for its idiosyncratic approach to the theme of love.
The film’s layered narrative revolves around the ritualistic sexual fantasies played out between two women in a grand house far away from the rest of the world. The relationship between them appears at first to be one of fierce and clear-cut dominance and submission—orders are given, tasks are failed, punishment is received. But—as anyone with decent expectations and a glimmer of astuteness will have realised—there is far more to this relationship than that. Without handing too many cheat notes out here, I’ll just say that the conflict between the two leads constitutes a fiery and no-punches-pulled look at how human relationships can be defined by superficiality and phoniness. An original theme? Of course not. An original approach to this theme? Probably not either—but it is unique, if you can see the difference.
As many reviewers have already pointed out, there’s a deliciously Bergman-esque quality to The Duke of Burgundy. While drawing comparisons to such a master as Bergman could never possibly be an insult, the film’s inability to escape from the shadow of the likes of Persona is one of its glaring weaknesses. To this end, The Duke of Burgundy almost falls into the peril of being a footnote or an afterthought to its influences rather than a companion. It doesn’t quite fall into this sorry chasm, but it certainly teeters on the edge.
Anyone could easily dismiss my above criticisms as unnecessary nitpicking, and perhaps they would have a fair point. Although knowledge of its influences is slightly more vital to appreciating it than it should be, it’s still a fantastic and engaging experience. It’s not going to win everyone’s heart, but it doesn’t seek to make this its problem.