Review – The Duke Of Burgundy

It’s something of a paradoxical quirk that the work of one of Britain’s most vital and uniquely gifted filmmakers should be so un-British in its style and subject matter.

The Duke Of Burgundu -

The Duke Of Burgundy – “a seductive and singular work of real vision”

Peter Strickland’s assured debut Katalin Varga (2009) saw the writer/director up sticks and decamp to Transylvania to get his slippery revenge drama made, while the giallo horror movie Toby Jones’s unassuming foley artist works on stirs up an increasingly frenzied hornet’s nest in his remarkable follow-up Berberian Sound Studio (2012).

This, the third beguiling motion picture from Strickland serves as yet another reminder that this is a filmmaker who resolutely refuses to be bound by the trappings of genre cinema.

Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) tends to Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) in the

Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) tends to Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) in the “beguiling” The Duke Of Burgundy

Whilst cinephiles will fall over themselves to spot the references to the sleazy Euro-erotica of the 1970s (movies that were generally seen as being more notable for their lascivious titles than for their quality) the film ostensibly tips its hat to, The Duke Of Burgundy operates at a far more sophisticated level in its examination of the BDSM-charged relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna).

Set in a nondescript wooded locale seemingly lifted from the pages of a Grimm fairytale, the interplay between Cynthia and Evelyn appears to suggest a mistress/servant dynamic, with Cynthia the dominant sadist who lazes around whilst ordering Evelyn to shine her boots or scrub her underwear.

However, the film’s sleight of hand is gradually uncovered as the give-and-take between the two is revealed to be a role play that, as the cracks of repetition start to show, suggests the power dynamic isn’t quite as one-sided as we first thought.

The butterfly effect: Chiara D'Anna's Evelyn in The Duke Of Burgundy

The butterfly effect: Chiara D’Anna’s Evelyn in The Duke Of Burgundy

Cynthia and Evelyn exist in a world apparently devoid of men, while they and the community around them are all lepidopterists – collectors and studiers of moths and butterflies (the eponymous Duke of Burgundy is a reference to the species of butterfly, rather than a male ruler).

The numerous cases of carefully arranged butterflies and moths displayed around Cynthia’s abode seem at first to suggest a visual metaphor for the controlling master/servant dynamic, but as their relationship metamorphoses into something more striking and free-floating the symbolism of the butterfly becomes crystallised.

As stylised as the film is (the bucolic production design and Nic Knowland’s sun-dappled cinematography are a joy), Stickland’s genuinely funny script is full of absurdist flourishes, from the mannequins sat at the back of a lepidopterary lecture to the straight-faced suggestion by Fatma Mohamed’s elaborately dressed Carpenter of a “human toilet” as a potential birthday present for Evelyn.

Sidse Babett Knudsen's Cythia in The Duke Of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen’s Cynthia in The Duke Of Burgundy

Whilst the more intimate scenes between the two leads are undoubtedly sensual, it never veers into leering exploitation and is almost always subverted by an amusing look or witty line (Cynthia’s declaration to Evelyn that “I need an instruction manual to get into half the things you buy me” being a case in point).

Both d’Anna and Knudsen play off each other beautifully and breathe an enchanting and sensitive life force into an unorthodox and complex bond; one that is more fragile and hypnotic than a butterfly and woozily evoked by the stirrings of Cat’s Eyes’ dreamlike soundtrack. Meanwhile, a stunningly simple throwaway dissolve from woodland to grass has to be one of the most breathtaking shots of the year.

A seductive and singular work of real vision, The Duke Of Burgundy will take flight in your imagination and confirms Strickland as an auteur of major standing.

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Great Films You Need To See – Secretary (2002)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout March with the theme of ‘sexuality’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case Steven Shainberg’s S&M-flavoured romance Secretary.

Long before the box office submitted to the inevitable adaptation of E.L James’ mummy porn juggernaut, another, altogether more fascinating Mr Grey indulged in a spot of big screen sadomasochism.

A film that doesn't allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook

A film that doesn’t allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook

It helps that the Mr Grey of Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) is played by jittery genius that is James Spader, whose career has been mottled with sexually dysfunctional types, from his impotent voyeur in Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989), to his character’s penchant for amputees in Crash (1996).

A nother day at the office for Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Scretary

A nother day at the office for Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Scretary

His is the perfect casting for the eccentric attorney; an obsessive-compulsive misfit who finds his soul mate in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s equally damaged Lee. Fresh out of a psychiatric hospital following a long period of self-harm, Lee soon returns to her masochistic ways in the miserable company of her hard-drinking father and meek, downtrodden mother. She responds to a job advert for a secretary at Grey’s low-rent office (an oft-sought vacancy, presumably, due to the illuminated sign out front) and the pair slowly attune to each other’s wavelength; which just happens to involve acts of BDSM.

The film’s prologue features Lee in bondage performing menial office tasks, before flashing back six months to her leaving hospital. The sight of Lee stapling paper using her chin and fixing up a cup of coffee with her arms bound to a pole is treated matter-of-factly but nevertheless threatens the prospect of a nudge-nudge sex comedy (the misjudged poster also doesn’t help).

Eccentric attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) in skulking mode in Secretary

Eccentric attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) in skulking mode in Secretary

But Shainberg wisely avoids the trap of winking at the audience or going over-the-top thanks to a script that treats its characters with a tenderness and understanding they have been longing for all their lives and finally find with each other.

The Red (actually purple) Riding Hood cloak the wide-eyed Lee wears when she first enters what we assume is the wolf’s lair of Grey’s office is nicely subverted when we see him frantically checking his hair, asking awkward, inappropriate questions of his would-be employee and revealing his carefully manicured orchids; a none-too-subtle symbol of his own fragility.

Interesting...

Interesting…

The film is careful not to rush what is a complex relationship, with their guarded fascination with each other signalled by lascivious glances that suddenly explode into something more extreme as Grey’s dominant demands for perfection from the willfully submissive Lee play out in increasingly intense ways. This extends beyond the office, to the extent whereby he instructs her on how many peas to put on her plate, to the bafflement of her family.

There are other nice touches, particularly between Lee and timid childhood friend Peter (Jeremy Davies) whom she falls into a relationship with to the delight of their parents. Lee’s frustration with the unassuming Peter is palpable, while the look on her face when she spies his picture during a masturbatory fantasy about her boss is priceless.

Office work takes a turn for boss E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and his Secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

Office work takes a turn for boss E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and his Secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

In a breakout performance, Gyllenhaal takes Lee on an involving journey from a child-like waif controlled by her illness, to someone who knows what – and who – she wants and is more than prepared to do what is necessary to get it.

Spader, who reportedly adopted the same hot/cold demeanour with Gyllenhaal off set as Grey has with Lee, is typically hypnotic; all slow, hushed tones and coiled mannerisms that erupt into moments of sexual expression that appear to surprise and thrill him in equal measure.

A film that doesn’t allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook.