I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, the beauty of a film festival is way you can walk into a film almost entirely blind. For instance you could look in the program and see that the director responsible for BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO has a new film bowing. You could stop right there and say “Sold!” – as I did, and walk in knowing little more than the title and director responsible. Doing this with a film that was playing things down the middle would be awesome on its own…

…doing this with a storyteller like Peter Strickland opens up the possibility of cinematic bafflement.

Strickland’s latest film THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY is about two women who both happen to be butterfly enthusiasts who share a connection. However, what at first gleam seems to be a professional relationship soon tips its hand and proves to be something more. The woman of the house, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), at first seems to be a demanding and emotionally abusive employer to her housemaid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), however we soon learn that their dynamic has been very much arranged and agreed-upon. What’s more, Evelyn has been very specific about what sort of abuse she requires from the relationship. The question becomes whether or not Cynthia can keep up.

On its own, this sort of story might seem enticing – and even a bit taboo. However, where it becomes extraordinary – and even divisive – is in its execution. The film is obsessed with the sensory experience, so its sound and visual design is intricate. We are made to be aware of every detail, so sounds like the flipping of pages, or the purring of a cat, or the sweeping of a hand over fabric ring out from the soundtrack like thunder. The way one is hyper-aware of every sensory experience in the throes of sex is what this film is aiming for with its sound design, specifically the lump in one’s throat that comes in the moments of anticipation. One could almost be forgiven if they wanted to close their eyes and justĀ listen to this movie…


I say “almost” because doing so would deny a viewer the lush visuals that come along with all that glorious sound. The crux of the story is about the pragmatics that come with anything – including a sexual kink. So to illustrate that, the film zeroes in on detail after detail. It lets us linger on the sight of Cynthia getting ready…bubbles in a tub of suds popping…or a hand on a door frame in a moment of pure desire. Subtlety is key in a lot of these images, and the film wants us to linger in their presence.

Like I say, this film is hung-up on pragmatics, and there are many who may find the pragmatics to be a tedious or cold experience. However, for the curious, and for those who are interested by the power dynamics that go int any relationship, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY is a fascinating watch. Pour yourself a glass of water and settle in.