“The Duke of Burgundy” is a sensual look at two women involved in a BDSM relationship

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Audiences seeking a queer alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey will find something wholly unique in Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. The film centers on lovers Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) two entomologists involved in a BDSM relationship. Delicate, gentle Evelyn works for the strict but loving Cynthia, who she worships. But is Cynthia a dom or is she submitting to Evelyn’s larger game? Equal parts Secretary and Room in Rome, the film is a meticulous study of what happens when a fetish subsumes a relationship.

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Shot in a lush, sensuous style, The Duke of Burgundy vacillates between seductive tone poem and long-form perfume commercial. The film is a homage to classic soft-core European erotica, such as Eugenie…The Story of Her Journey into Perversion or my personal favorite, Vampyros Lesbos. While the film is mostly experimental fantasy, it provides some very funny takes on the day-to-day exhaustion of 24/7 role play. Though strong on visuals, the film allows moments of emotional intimacy to peer through and both actresses shine in their roles.

I talked with writer and director Peter Strickland, who has been touring the festival circuit with the film.

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AfterEllen.com: One of the larger themes of the film is that of perception and the shifting perspective of the women in the film. Was that something you had planned from the start?

Peter Strickland: Definitely. At the beginning, the film starts off as a sort of exploitation film that we’ve seen a thousand times before, the cruel boss and the long-suffering maid, characters designed to be sexual fantasies for heterosexual men…I wanted to make something that starts that way and then becomes more human and tender. What’s fascinating for me is seeing the dominant and the submissive out of character, and how the journey of something that starts out as a vicarious joy, soon becomes a bit of a chore.

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AE: In terms of being a male director directing female sex scenes, there’s a fine line between acting and exploitation. How did you negotiate these scenes with your actresses?

PS: It was one of the first things on my mind, the question of the male gaze. The only thing I can do is make the scene less mechanical and more about the atmosphere. We designed the shoot so that the sex would come towards the end, but the actresses found the dramatic, emotional scenes to be far more intense. I put everything explicitly in the script so there are no shocks for the actors involved.

 

AE: The sex scenes felt very natural and authentic. Did you have any queer/lesbian sex consultants on set?

PS: I did, but they got bored by the script! All my films take place in worlds I don’t belong, so there is always a degree of artifice but I try not to hide it. Let’s not pretend this isn’t an artificial world, let’s heighten it and make it more absurd. Hopefully it becomes like a fable/fairy tale so your sole focus is the dynamics of the relationship. I focused on the emotional truth of a couple with different intimate needs, and there’s a great sadness to that.

The Duke of Burgundy will open in select theaters  and be available on VOD on January 23.

 

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