Fresh from the success of his retro-flavoured suspense chiller Berberian Sound Studio, firm film devotee Peter Strickland strikes once again with another mind-bendingly odd slice of British magic. Nestled deep within the human psyche, Strickland’s latest feature once again lets style slide comfortably into the driver’s seat with narrative trailing almost worryingly behind. But after all, must a film always make perfect sense in order to land its message effectively? If so, The Duke of Burgundy is very much the exception to the rule.
Set deep within a countryside of unknown placing in a time before technology, Burgundy finds Strickland exploring the innermost intricacies of human desire through an all-female cast. A tired couple find their fetishistic role plays gradually losing their spark and so, begin to seek out more abrasive methods of achieving what they so long for. Of course nothing comes particularly naturally and soon the pair find their own sexual cravings dragging them both helplessly into an unmapped state bordering on the surreal.
As dizzying and entrancing as it stands, it’s no secret that The Duke of Burgundy is far from ever being a commercially-viable film. Narrative direction is very obviously not a concern and so, attempting to decipher Burgundy’s scattered plotting is an arduous and entirely futile task. Here it’s all about the fragments forming something else entirely: an experience. This is a film that’s so nonsensically sound that its lack of story is never even noticeable. Strickland’s soul lies in the visuals and their metaphorical placing amongst the crazy little world that he’s created.
It’s this self-contained world of Strickland’s that allows the film, as stunningly difficult as it is, the ability to work fully. Each event is so lovingly bizarre and yet so beautifully grounded in its execution that there is rarely ever reason to question what is going on. Leads Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen sell their performances so utterly convincingly that the world of Burgundy stands just as real and stable as our own, allowing its brutal madness to both encapsulate and entertain with ease.
If Burgundy is to be criticised for any of the many leaps it takes, it is most likely to be its finale, an unreserved journey into the flat-out surreal that doesn’t land quite as firmly as the rest. Strickland doesn’t so much drop the ball, but more journeys too far into his crazed ideas, becoming lost amongst his own stylish labyrinths. The result is something that comes across as even more indulgent and abstract than the rest of the film (which is really saying something), and this ultimately skews all perception of Burgundy as a whole. By no means does this conclusion completely ruin the film, it just simply makes it significantly less accessible.
There are, without a doubt, very few films like The Duke of Burgundy, if any. As frustrating and monotonous as it may often seem, there is unlikely to be a feature as bold, thoughtful and entrancing as this for quite some time. Strickland offers so much to get lost in, without ever offering a helping hand through it all, and this is to be both commended and admired. Truly daring filmmaking.
The Duke of Burgundy, directed by Peter Strickland, is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival on 9, 10 and 19 October. Tickets are available from whatson.bfi.org.uk.