It’s not everyday that I come out of the cinema wondering what on Earth I’ve just watched, but at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy did precisely that – and not in a bad way. It’s hard to really put into words the influx of emotions and bonkers thoughts it brought with it, as I’d really consider the film to be more of an experience than a simple watch it and walk away movie.
Focusing on a happy couple’s relationship, the film charts the ups and downs that accompany the incorporation of S&M into the mix. Initially at first, it looks like you’re genuinely watching an abusive relationship unfold, when it comes from harsh words, constant disapproval and even a case of urination as a means of punishment. It’s easy to sit and think ‘what the hell am I watching?’ but as the plot expands it fleshes out some of the motives and reasoning behind the actions. There’s a sort of nuanced eroticism to it that plays well into the art of romance as much as it does the unorthodox.
The woman initially perceived to be the abusive party, is actually more of a victim of her own lover’s masochism, as her partner is the one pulling the strings in every scenario, even down to writing instruction cards for what to do and say to achieve the end result she wants. It’s a very surreal and personal experience to be watching because it helps to show some of the finer points of an unconventional relationship but also the struggles of trying to bend to the whims of your partner without losing yourself in the process.
I’m not going to lie, it is a stylistically rich, kink-fest of a film and certainly not something you’d want to drag your mother to, but it is engaging in itself. It’s unique, but also different enough to get you thinking about the dynamics of what your watching and to begin delving deeper beneath the surface to find the meanings beyond the obvious. I still think it’s bizarre, but it’s stayed with me since I first saw it – which is the mark of a good film.
If you can walk out of the cinema with questions in your mind, it’s served it’s purpose. Whether you love it or hate it, you’ve engaged enough with it to be paying attention and to be allowing yourself to keep thinking about it even after the film’s finished rolling.
I still haven’t answered half of my own questions, but I do think there’s something majestic about the story and styling choices, which become apparent from the first few minutes of the film’s opening titles. It does after all, make a point of telling the audience who supplied the perfume and lingerie for the duration of the film. Which I suppose in essence is to give you a better and all rounded view of the grandiose and lavish backdrop Strickland wanted to set the story to.
As far as films goes, it’s definitely a film festival film and more at home on a niche stage than it is in the mainstream cinema, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or interesting to watch. It’s essentially a marmite film, so make up your mind for yourself by checking it out and letting us know: do you love it or hate it?