Review: The Duke of Burgundy

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: A young woman (Chiara D’Anna) and her older lover (Sidse Babett Knudsen) embark on a sadomasochistic relationship full of role-playing. But in the end, who is dominating who?

REVIEW: I’m well aware that the quick plot description above probably makes Peter Strickland‘s DUKE OF BURGUNDY sound like a tantalizing mix of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR and 50 SHADES OF GREY, but for all its controversy (having landed an 18 rating in the UK) this is a relatively tame film that’s less concerned with sex than style. And oh man is it ever stylish.

Strickland is quickly turning into one of the more intriguing new voices to emerge from the UK. His BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO played to almost unanimous raves on the festival circuit and DUKE OF BURGUNDY has been maybe even more acclaimed, even if it’s an entirely different style of film. The only thing the two have in common is a certain retro style. If BERBERIAN seemed influenced by giallo films, BURGUNDY seems more in line with a movie like EMMANUELLE, only far less graphic and surprisingly innocent.

BURGUNDY has an absolutely marvelous opening, with D’Anna’s young maid biking to work over a retro, Hammer-style opening with a strong theme by pop duo Cat’s Eyes. Once she arrives at her employer’s – who turns out to be a wealthy lepidopterist (the study of butterflies) – she’s forced to submit to a series of humiliating tasks, culminating in a sexual ritual that I won’t describe here (I leave that for you to discover) that we never really see but winds up being rather funny in how absolutely straight-faced it’s depicted.

It’s not long before we discover that D’Anna is a more than willing participant in Knudsen’s games, and in fact is the one pulling the strings herself. Most of the film winds up being a study over how difficult it would be to maintain such a relationship, with the stakes inevitably having to be raised all the time (with D’Anna memorably hissing “be nasty!” several times). It’s alternately funny, arousing (yes, that can’t be denied) and more often than not totally surreal and psychedelic. Some of the most memorable touches include deliberately obvious mannequins being used as extras in Knudsen’s lectures, and a terrific bit where a fetish designer tries to sell the couple a made-to-order bed-set where one literally sleeps on top of the imprisoned other one.

While it all likely sounds extremely erotic or even seedy, it’s really not and for the most part it’s a totally innocent film that’s starkly unexploitative considering the erotica Strickland seems to be inspired by (in the seventies this would have made a great vehicle for Sylvia Kristel). D’Anna and Knudsen are both excellent, with neither being off-screen for long. Other than the fetish builder, this is essentially a two-woman show.

While DUKE OF BURGUNDY might be a tougher sell to genre audiences than BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, it’s still a totally absorbing art-film, and very entertaining, maintaining an enviably quick pace and always looking absolutely gorgeous. It’s certainly for a niche crowd, but it’s a pretty striking film nonetheless and I’m eager to see what Strickland does next.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.