Ladies in waiting

Writer/director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy could be compared to the recent screen adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey in that it explores a dominant/submissive relationship, although in this case it’s between two women (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna).

Lest one think this is some sort of steamy lesbian romp, it most definitely is not. For one thing, the more overtly sexual scenes are almost completely devoid of nudity. Taking his cue from the stylish European sex dramas of the 1960s and ‘70s, such as those made by Roger Vadim, Strickland has fashioned a stylish, suggestive character piece augmented by Nic Knowland’s arty cinematography and a florid score by Cat’s Eye.

Cynthia (Knudsen) is the faithful housekeeper to her wealthy mistress, Evelyn (D’Anna). They exist in a self-contained world – Evelyn’s country manor – surrounded by an expansive collection of insects under glass, the symbolism here being hardly restrained. Although Evelyn is clearly dominant and Cynthia just as clearly submissive, they do display some genuine affection for each other, even under the “terms” (as it were) of their relationship.

Knudsen and D’Anna, who are so constantly onscreen that the film might well have been a two-hander, acquit themselves well and fleshing out their characters in subtle fashion. Although he refrains from showing too much skin, Strickland is more interested in getting under the skin, and into the minds, of these two women. The Duke of Burgundy may be too genteel, actually, for viewers expecting something more explicit, and less cerebral for those expecting a more incisive exploration of its provocative subject matter. In any event, however, it’s much better than Fifty Shades of Grey. !

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