THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY by Peter Strickland
I highly recommend Peter Strickland’s elegant, erotic film, inspired by such Jess Franco films as A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, according to the director. The film has added interest for Jess Franco fans due to the casting of Monica Swinn, in a key supporting role as an inquisitive, disapproving neighbor who observes the comings and goings of the two main characters. Ms. Swinn is an accomplished actress, writer and artist, who appeared in such 1970s Jess Franco films as LA COMTESSE NOIRE, CELESTINE,BONNE A TOUT FAIRE, BARBED WIRE DOLLS, LES CHATOUILLEUSES, DAS BILDNIS DER DORIANA GRAY, WOMEN WITHOUT INNOCENCE and LOVE CAMP.
Whether she is playing a victim of female vampire Doriana Gray (Lina Romay) or the ferocious warden in BARBED WIRE DOLLS, she is always immersed in her role. She is always seen at a distance in THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY but she manages to establish and develop a distinct character. She has also appeared in a number of Eurocine produced exploitation films not directed by Franco and is also in Rollin’s evocative pirate film, LES DEMONAIQUES (1973). Here she appears as Lorna, the always distantly viewed next door neighbor of the S&M lovers, Cynthia (Sidse Babbet Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). The women are withdrawn into a private world of entomology and role playing, studying such insects as the gorgeous Duke of Burgundy, while repeating a series of complicated sadomasochistic rituals in their isolated, bucolic estate.
It all unfolds in an unspecified European country in what appears to be a pre Internet era. The clothing, furniture and surroundings are all captured in detail by the luminous cinematography. Director Peter Strickland never really shows any sex or nudity, but succeeds in creating an atmosphere of subtle, sometimes disorienting eroticism in the style of Spanish master Luis Bunuel (THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE), if not Jess Franco, although the mannequins scattered amidst the female audience at Cynthia’s lecture evoke the director of NECRONOMICON and VAMPYROS LESBOS. The point of the film is the there is a thin line between masochism and sadism, and in this case the demands of Evelyn to be abused in a very specific manner sometimes overwhelm the older Cynthia. This is all transmitted with admirable humor, subtlety, restraint and emotional resonance.
This is really a long way, though, from the desperately no-budget affairs of Franco, but it’s also an illustration on how much the late, legendary exploitation auteur remains an artistic inspiration to filmmakers who see his filmography as something more than a mass of quick, cheap thrills.
The film is never sordid or tasteless, and features a wonderfully original instrumental and vocal score. It deals with S&M, but with class, style, originality and a light touch. Both Ms Knudsen and Ms. D’Anna are superb in their demanding roles in a film exclusively about the ins and outs of sadomasochistic role-playing. It’s a love story which dares to be different and does so with skill, intelligence and human insight. Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) remains a filmmaker to be watched. (C) Robert Monell, 2015