The Duke of Burgundy

OK, so it’s a little more complicated, but in effect, the pitch for The Duke of Burgundy could be the old joke about the sadist and the masochist. The sadist stands toying with a whip, while the masochist trembles with anticipation. “Hurt me, hurt me!” pleads the masochist. After a tantalizing pause, the sadist just smiles and says: “No.”

Peter Strickland’s elegantly stylized film is an extended game with the expectations that surround domination-and-submission role-play, and with expectations in general—not least the moviegoer’s. The Duke of Burgundy certainly confounds standard assumptions about British cinema. Writer-director Strickland is a relishable anomaly on the current U.K. scene—an eccentric, a dreamer and an aesthete within a national cinema that normally disregards or discourages such filmmakers (among the executive producers of The Duke is another misfit Brit dreamer, Ben Wheatley).

But Strickland has achieved prominence as an auteur-in-exile, almost as if he were a foreign infiltrator into the predominantly realist world of British film. Resident in Hungary, he made his debut with the Hungarian-language revenge story Katalin Varga in 2009, then followed up with the very different Berberian Sound Studio (12), which was as much a conceptual art piece as it was a movie, conventionally speaking. A paranoid drama about an English sound editor and Foley artist out of his depth on an Italian horror production, this was at once a fractured narrative of mental breakdown, a treatise on screen sound’s address to the psyche, an inquiry into extreme violence and its effects on the viewer/listener, and a fanboy tribute to the thematic and stylistic excess of the Seventies giallo school.

The Duke of Burgundy

Strickland the conceptual pasticheur is at work again in The Duke of Burgundy, essentially a claustrophobic two-hander about love, obsession, performance, and lepidoptery (yes, lepidoptery), as well as a lesbian love story that pays homage to Sixties/Seventies Euro-erotica—specifically Jess Franco, with perhaps a dash of Just Jaeckin. We know we’re in an exotic, otherworldly universe from the start, as we see a cloaked woman sitting by a woodland stream. As the woman, Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna), cycles through the woods, the light through the leaves is… well, the word that comes to mind is “dappled,” and it’s accompanied by retro-rustic psychedelic-folk music by the duo Cat’s Eyes, with trilling guitar, female vocals with a nursery-song lilt, and later, a nicely creaking oboe that enhances the film’s very woody, organic tone. Then come the gorgeous retro credits, with textured washes of color over freeze frames, as much a stylistic tour de force as those in Berberianand with prominent upfront credits not just for the lingerie (Andrea Flesch) but also for perfume (Je Suis Gizella). We’re not just in movieland here, but in a strange private area of it: altogether another part of the woods, you might say.

Evelyn, we learn, is the cleaner and servant to the stately, imperious Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who lives in a beautiful, eerie ivy-colored mansion, and is the sternest of mistresses. Her opening words to Evelyn are a chilly “You’re late,” followed shortly by a peremptory command to massage her feet, which Evelyn does with respectful relish. Later, Cynthia tells Evelyn off for not washing her lingerie properly, and leads her behind a glass-paneled door to take her punishment, which is left to our imagination. Eventually, we see the two women caressing in bed; the mistress-servant routine is a ritual between two lovers, after which they can drop the masks and be tender.

All this might seem a sleekly packaged commonplace, but the twist comes some 25 minutes in: Cynthia is not strictly the stern chatelaine, Evelyn not strictly her slave. Evelyn is making the rules, and apparently footing the bill; she has paid for Cynthia’s sumptuous and complicated wardrobe, some items requiring an instruction manual to put on, the latter complains. The long-suffering Cynthia is playing the mistress according to strict rules that Evelyn has scripted: we see Cynthia reading through handwritten instructions specifying not only her dialogue, but precisely how long she should keep Evelyn waiting at the door when she rings. As perfectionist writer-directors go, Evelyn is as exacting as they come.

The Duke of Burgundy

But the couple’s relationship is not the oddest part of The Duke of Burgundy. Stranger yet is the fact that the film’s world—a small rural community, apparently in Central Europe in the 1960s or ’70s—is wholly populated by women, males apparently not existing outside the title, which refers to a particular species of butterfly. Moreover, nearly all the women in the film devote their lives to the study of moths and butterflies. The couple’s house is filled with illustrations of them, and display cases full of the captured creatures, which the camera scans in obsessive close-up. Moths flutter in the window frames as the couple make love, and insect lore even inflects their love life: Cynthia tells Evelyn that she intends to use her body as a chair, adding, “I can read about cave crickets while you are helpless underneath me.”

At a local Institute, an all-female audience (including, bizarrely, two or three obvious mannequins, whether to make up numbers or to highlight the artifice) listens to various women, including Cynthia, giving learned presentations on the wing markings of, and the sounds made by, certain moths. Strickland’s own enduring obsession is with non-musical sound, and the film’s end credits list in detail the insect field recordings used in the film—not just the names of the recordists and the insects (in English and Latin), but also the relevant microphones, times of day and years of recording, and even the temperatures at which the tapes were made.

Such pedantry is these days generally labeled geekery or nerdism, but in fact derives from a centuries-old tradition of mock-scholarship, going back at least to writers such as Rabelais and Sir Thomas Browne. Its most celebrated cinematic flagbearer is Peter Greenaway, whose films have tirelessly pursued an obsession with taxonomy and classification. Like Greenaway’s dramas, The Duke of Burgundy is staged in a hermetically enclosed, manifestly invented universe in which contingency is stripped out so that everything is dominated by a limited number of recurring rules and themes. Thus, not only is everyone mad about bugs, but everyone seems to be into S&M: when a vampish woman known as the Carpenter (Fatma Mohamed) arrives to take measurements for a special kind of constricting bed, Evelyn is dismayed to learn that local demand for the item is so intense that she won’t get hers in time for her birthday.

The Duke of Burgundy

The theme of restraint, or constraint, has its literal part to play in Strickland’s story. Instead of this bespoke bed, Evelyn tries sleeping locked in a wooden chest, and chooses a safe word to signal to Cynthia when she wants to be released. That word, of course, is itself lepidopterous—pinastri, from the name of the pine hawk-moth. There are only so many possibilities in this enclosed, expressly limited fictional world. Restriction is also a key principle in the couple’s sexual routine—a defined set of elements to be repeated over and over in specific codified ways.

But similar restriction applies in certain types of experimental or anti-realist fiction: in Greenaway’s films, or in the kind of literary composition associated with the OuLiPo group, and notably Georges Perec, whose novel La Disparition wholly dispenses with the letter “e.” The novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet composed many of his fictions, literary, and cinematic, through the Rubik’s Cube recombination of a limited number of repeated elements within an enclosed fictional world. Strickland certainly sails near to Robbe-Grillet territory in The Duke of Burgundy, both in the fetishistic but tongue-in-cheek use of softcore lesbianism, and in nods to the writer’s most famous script: he has the camera glide along a chandeliered ceiling, echoing Last Year in Marienbad, and decks the Carpenter with black feathers like Delphine Seyrig’s in that film.

The Duke of Burgundy might easily have come across as an airless exercise, or a hyper-rarefied amusement for a particular kind of niche fetishist. Strickland’s peculiar interests are, apparently, writ large on screen: here’s a man, one assumes, who likes moths, natural sound, avant-garde narrative strategies, a somewhat disreputable field of Seventies retro-cult cinema, and the private activities and underwear choices of mature European ladies. If the success of The Duke depended on finding a viewer whose own interests fitted that same profile, it would have a very limited public indeed. (After a press screening, a colleague said to me: “Very nice—but who exactly is the audience for this film?” “Why,” I said, “lesbians and lepidopterists, and the men who love them.”)

But what brings the film to life is the elegance of the execution, beginning with the silkiness of the performances. Sidse Babett Knudsen is best known as the lead in Scandinavian political TV drama Borgen, and that gives a perverse frisson to her decorously steamy scenes: my God, you think, that’s the Prime Minister of Denmark whose crotch the camera is slowly zooming in on. Knudsen has a very soft, detached delivery, and a fake English accent that’s manifestly artificial enough to be unsettling, while d’Anna’s slightly stilted Italian-accented readings as the faux-demure Evelyn sound almost like dubbing—which adds another layer of detached irreality. Their interplay achieves a piquant absurdity, and the decorous scenes of sexual intimacy—no nudity, always deluxe lingerie—display a languid tenderness, showing the two lovers taking real pleasure in each others’ bodies, and presences.

The Duke of Burgundy

Of course, this is wholly a male fantasy about women in love, and the voyeurism is accentuated by DP Nic Knowland’s camerawork, eroticizing the women’s bodies by showing them refracted and reflected in windows, or as if through various shimmering filters. But the objectification of the two women is also defused by a comic emphasis on the mundanity that must affect all long-term relationships, however passionate. Cynthia keeps Evelyn awake at night with her snoring, prefers baggy pajamas to basques, and can’t hide her weariness when Evelyn demands that she invent new dialogue to thrill her (the fundamental problem of art: how to innovate and renew while still observing the imperative to repeat, recycle, provide the same tried and tested thrills?).

The Duke of Burgundy is a deeply eccentric filigree of a film, as aesthetically refined a piece of cinematic artifice as I’ve seen in ages. Taking their cue perhaps as much from Sixties/Seventies record sleeves as from any films of the period, the images often shimmer mysteriously or fragment kaleidoscopically—Knowland played similar tricks with light, as an object in its own right, in his features for the Brothers Quay, Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. For much of the film, Strickland follows chains of images, treating them as purely imagistic or quasi-musical motifs, rather than for narrative effect. There’s an astonishing crescendo moment in the film, in which the screen is suddenly filled with an explosive irruption of moths. You can’t quite say what it means, but you know how it feels.

This mini-apocalypse, in fact, may be a sort of Strickland trademark: there was one in Berberian Sound Studio, a similarly unnerving climactic moment at which the film’s narrative logic simply imploded. After that moment, Strickland didn’t quite seem sure where to go, and it rather feels as if in The Duke, too, what follows the climax is a sort of dying fall, even an anticlimax. I suspect, though, that one of these days, Strickland will make a film that manages its dynamics with perfect efficiency, and tells a conventionally satisfying, rounded story, and then we may all be lamenting that some of the ineffable strangeness has been lost. For now, Strickland is making films that are frustrating, tantalizing, and unsettling for all kinds of interesting reasons. Hugely entertaining into the bargain, The Duke of Burgundy is about as close to an impossible object as cinema—especially British cinema—gets these days.