|'Director Peter Strickland plays out a teasing erotic thread to the drama which, like Berberian Sound Studio's Horror, also never really materialises with any certainty'|
Those who saw Berberian Sound Studio will not be surprised to hear that Peter Strickland's follow-up, The Duke Of Burgundy, is similarly unconcerned with clearly drawn plot. Strickland is marking himself out as a director unafraid to present a film which not only belies explanation, but pro-actively befuddles it. In amateur hands this could be frustrating; student-film level non-narrative to wring your hands at, but Strickland has 'got it' and got it by the bucketload. Despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of answers The Duke Of Burgundy emerges as one of the 2015's triumphs.
The precis, such that it is possible to give one, places two middle-aged ladies Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in a somewhat luxurious hillside home. The situation outside of these walls is unclear but this much can be gleaned; the society Strickland depicts appears to only be made up of women and to somehow centre on a university-like institute, devoted to the study of butterflies and moths. Both Evelyn and Cynthia attend or deliver talks at the institute, in between living a role-playing home life which sees one act subservient to the other.
Like Berberian, Strickland dances around genre and exploitation without ever actually placing his toe within it, nor setting out his stall to make a genre film. You can easily imagine that the society of The Duke Of Burgundy is some sort of post-apocalyptic commune of scholars, desperately holding on to the trappings of decadence and an area of study connotated with a certain eliteness. You can also easily imagine it is something else.
Simultaneously, Strickland plays out a teasing erotic thread to the drama which, like Berberian's Horror, also never really materialises with any certainty. In amongst all of the women's serious conversations, the director/screenwriter drops playful notes of absurdity, mundane within the context of this relationship. Evelyn likes to be locked into places by her lover. A bed with a sealable compartment beneath it is suggested as a present but ultimately cannot be delivered by the carpenter (Fatma Mohamed) in time. 'The bed would have been perfect', Evelyn tells her. 'Would a human toilet be a suitable substitute?', the carpenter suggests in response.
The temptation with something that suggests so few answers in its text is to look for them in the subtext. Whilst these are there (surely as a Romantic Drama this has something to say about honesty in relationships: both women play roles for a time, are 'punished' when they get something wrong and eventually revert to discussing day to day problems), perhaps it is even more thrilling to think of this simply as Strickland's style, his own linguistic approach to cinema. Whichever one you choose to follow, this is a thrilling and unique way to tell a story, wholly satisfying in its lack of desperation to deliver that very satisfaction.