The beauty of The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland’s followup to Berberian Sound Studio, lies in how it announces itself to its audience. Beginning with a young woman sitting by an idyllic, babbling brook while birds chirp away in the distance, it dovetails into a main title sequence that exists somewhere in the vicinity of the intersection of grindhouse exploitation, Blue Velvet and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. As this ingenue bicycles her way through the countryside, the film jerks its way in and out of pastel freeze frames, announcing its cast and crew with the full fervor of the 1970’s. It is a clinic in juxtaposition, with images of the young woman in ecstacy superimposed over her innocent bike ride, and (in one of the most satisfying double takes to occur in an opening title sequence) a “Perfume by Je Suis Gizella” credit set against a maggot wriggling in the dirt. Strickland is clearly not particularly interested in subtlety (this is a sapphic love story choked with butterfly imagery, after all), and wastes little time establishing the tone of the film as an update to those illicit movies that would air on HBO after midnight.
Concerning the lives of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), two lesbian entomologists chiefly concerned with the study of butterflies. Living in a secluded estate in a nondescript time and place, the lovers spend their free time expanding the horizons of their sex lives into increasingly taboo fringes beyond polite society. Settling into a role play heavy master/slave S&M dynamic, their relationship becomes strained as Cynthia’s master role starts to interfere with her feelings for her lover, and she must choose between the pleasure she gives Evelyn and the pain she inflicts on herself providing that pleasure.
A tongue-in-cheek update to the softcore sexploitation movies of the 60’s and 70’s could have merit in its execution as a straightforward pastiche, but Strickland has much more on his mind. As the nature of Evelyn and Cynthia’s relationship slowly reveals itself (the film does not make it immediately clear that Evelyn is actually Cynthia’s girlfriend instead of just her maid) it is marked by how perfunctory their kinks seem to be. Indulging in everything from punishment fantasies to humiliation to (notably offscreen) water sports, Evelyn and Cynthia have the sort of relationship that normally would be the backdrop of slapstick comedy or some sinister psychosexual thriller, but this is just what they do after they finish their work for the day. There is titillation to be found in this film’s 100 minutes, but also remarkable restraint, as this is really a story about two women and how they demonstrate love and devotion to each other.
It should not come as a surprise that the director of Berberian Sound Studio has a masterful control of sound, but it is entirely possible that Strickland’s sound work here surpasses his previous film. His approach to The Duke of Burgundy is not unlike how Park Chan-wook designed the sound for Stoker, pushing mundane sound effects (the purring of a cat, the flutter of butterfly wings, the popping of a soap bubble, aggressive typing on a typewriter) to the front of the mix, overpowering everything else around them. This is an intimate tale, both physically and emotionally, and the sound design creates a tactile immediacy. Cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland combines the soft lens feel of the 70’s with a more modern aesthetic, utilizing (along with editor Matyas Fekete) dizzying montages and lovely match cuts, painting with a palette of inky, satisfying blacks. Intermittently, Strickland injects a taste of the paranoia that defined the second half of Berberian Sound Studio, but it never overwhelms. He is more interested in using those moments to reinforce the themes of the central relationship. The look and feel of The Duke of Burgundy is simultaneously singular and familiar, a confident and poised new take on established forms.
Of course, a film so predicated on a central relationship could have the best technical merits in the world without meaning a thing if its leads are not believable. Fortunately, Strickland’s casting is inspired. Neither lead should be particularly recognizable to American audiences; Knudsen has worked predominantly in Denmark and this is only D’Anna’s second film (the first being Berberian Sound Studio), but these roles feel like a second skin, their actions never betraying their characters’ motivations. It is a tough act, one that requires my initial compartmentalization of feelings between their S&M role playing and their otherwise normal relationship, and an inversion of that status quo as the compartmentalization starts to break down in the film’s final third. Knudsen has the showier and more demanding role, and thus comes off a little brighter for it, but that is mere technicality, and would be a disservice to the equally impassioned and committed work of D’Anna. Both women are a delight to watch on screen, ensuring that the film does not lack in any area.
Movies this good are not supposed to be released in January. Late January is a cinematic graveyard, the time for misfires and messes, for micro-budget found footage horror films. It is the time when much of the moviegoing public is catching up on the late additions to awards season that are just reaching the level of nationwide distribution. While independent studios and distributors never really catered to such stringent interpretations of the calendar, it is easy to get lost in the shuffle during the early-year doldrums. If there is any justice in this world, The Duke of Burgundy will not befall the fate of the ignored. It is too good, too well-crafted, too different from the standard fare to be tossed aside with January’s forgettable releases. The quality of Peter Strickland’s third feature is beyond reproach, a sophisticated and tender adult romance, a wonderfully witty 70’s sexploitation throwback with a lot more on its mind than it may initially let on. This film sets the highest of bars for the rest of 2015; time will tell whether the rest of the year’s releases will be up to the task.