Even the kinkiest couples have to work to keep the spark alive. That’s the message at the heart of the hypnotic, erotic The Duke of Burgundy, which weaves quite a spell out of repetition and mystery. A midnight movie for the smart set, the latest from up-and-coming filmmaker Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) is a beautiful puzzle.
The deception begins from the opening frames. Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) rides her bike to the house of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a slightly older woman who addresses her gruffly, expecting Evelyn, who’s a maid, to clean her home to her exacting standards. (Even worse for poor Evelyn, she’s late on her first day.)
But after criticizing Evelyn, Cynthia ends up in bed with the woman. It turns out this isn’t their first encounter: In fact, it’s part of an elaborate game of role-play for these longtime lovers. And it appears that it’s actually Evelyn who’s calling the shots, writing scripts for them to act out.
From that clever opening, The Duke of Burgundy proceeds to explain (but not explain) the couple’s relationship. Setting most of the action within the walls of the house—except for brief scenes from a conference for butterfly enthusiasts—Strickland has crafted a claustrophobic portrait where we observe the characters’ actions without always understanding them.
Such mysteries are common for Strickland. His debut, Katalin Varga, chronicled the strange odyssey of a woman who travels to the home of the man who raped her and got her pregnant. Berberian Sound Studio concerned a sound mixer slowly losing his mind—or was the studio where he’s working haunted? Utilizing intense, impressionistic sound designs, Strickland makes films as if they were headphone symphonies, enveloping the viewer in his quietly unsettling moodscapes.
The Duke of Burgundy is less outwardly ominous than Strickland’s previous two films, but not by a lot. Easily it’s his funniest. The movie’s setup—lesbians, S&M—suggests all types of naughty sights, but Strickland both plays into those assumptions and subverts them. If The Duke of Burgundy were a god-awful Hollywood comedy, it would be Sex Tape, in which a once-randy married couple learned through stupid plot twists that sex and love are a constant process of change and negotiation. Instead, Strickland filters his characters’ desires through homages to Nicolas Roeg and Ingmar Bergman, never once giving us a traditional sex scene but always filling the frame with a steamy undercurrent. (The most provocative moment happens off-screen.) The movie is all tease, but it can sometimes be a really fun tease: A particularly engrossing sequence is inspired by the dark shadow between a woman’s thighs.
In lieu of a traditional plot, Strickland gives us snippets from Evelyn and Cynthia’s relationship, sometimes repeating certain role-playing scenarios so that we get a sense of how confining even fantasy can be. But because the filmmaker doesn’t distinguish between the role-playing and the “ordinary” scenes between the characters, The Duke of Burgundy succeeds in making relationships seem like a shared secret between its participants who interact in their own language. (In fact, in one key moment where one character confesses an affair to the other, it takes a moment to determine whether it’s not just another made-up scenario.) The repetition may sometimes get tedious, which is partly the point, but perhaps even more so than in Berberian Sound Studio Strickland here is using a location to externalize his characters’ psychological stirrings. Cynthia’s home is beautiful and gothic but also a bit crumbling—alluring and a bit unnerving as well. It feels like a perfect metaphor for a love affair whose passion may have peaked.
Both actresses are meant to seem slightly distant, keeping their characters a bit opaque. But D’Anna does a superb job of playing Evelyn as a slightly impatient, impetuous woman, the one in the relationship always goading the other to some new challenge. As for Knudsen, she lends Cynthia a certain sadness. Because we learn so little about these people’s inner lives or backstories, we’re tempted to connect the dots ourselves, and it’s hard not to see in Cynthia a woman who has lived a longer life and, therefore, doesn’t have the same freewheeling energy she once had. (It doesn’t seem coincidental that of the two lovers, Cynthia is the one more attracted to hanging out in her dowdy pajamas.)
Because Strickland doesn’t make conventional stories, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they end on deeply ambiguous or unresolved notes. Like the filmmaker, The Duke of Burgundy’s lovers understand their world better than we ever will, so the allure is entering it for a few hours, trying to make sense of what we see. Consequently, it’s impossible to grasp all of the film’s meanings in one sitting. This is a very strong film—and it might be even better on its fourth or eighth viewing.
Director: Peter Strickland
Writer: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.