After paying elaborate tribute to Italian giallo horror films in his 2012 “Berberian Sound Studio,” British director Peter Strickland applies much the same formula to the high-toned Euro sexploitation pics of the 1960s and ‘70s in “The Duke of Burgundy,” here with even more striking, singular results. An act of cinephilic homage that transcends pastiche to become its own uniquely sensuous cinematic object, Strickland’s densely layered, slyly funny portrayal of the sadomasochistic affair between two lesbian entomologists tips its hats to such masters of costumed erotica as Jess Franco, Tinto Brass and Jean Rollin, without ever cheapening its strange but affecting love story. A cult item to be sure, “Duke” could prove a canny arthouse counter-offensive to “50 Shades of Grey” in niche theatrical play.
Every day, the two women enact their elaborate fantasy of domination and submission. Evelyn (“Berberian” star Chiara D’Anna), the younger, plays the part of a soft-spoken maid with wide green eyes and porcelain cheekbones. Cynthia (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen) is the middle-aged mistress of the house, for whom nothing Evelyn does is ever quite right, and who doles out kinky, humiliating punishments commensurate to each violation. An errant pair of Cynthia’s panties, found separated from the rest of the (hand-washed) laundry, is sure to result in a special scolding behind a closed bathroom door, where that sound of trickling water you hear isn’t emanating from a tap.
Although Evelyn initially appears to be the submissive underling here, it’s soon revealed that she’s actually the puppet master, literally scripting the action in advance (rather like a filmmaker) on cards she leaves scattered about the house. The instructions are obsessively detailed down to the precise amount of time Cynthia should leave her locked inside an old wooden trunk (where she always seems to end up) and at what point in the ritual she should do something “surprising” (not during the first hour, but not during the last hour either). In lieu of “uncle,” the safe word here, should things ever get too out of hand, is “pinastri,” Latin for a species of moth.
We don’t know, and never learn, exactly how long these theatrics have been going on — nor, for that matter, exactly when and where “The Duke of Burgundy” is even taking place. (“Somewhere, sometime in Europe” is all the press kit allows, though the costumes and the presence of electric lights suggest the Victorian era. The actual shooting was done in Hungary, where Strickland resides.) But we do know from relatively early in Strickland’s film that, like so many long-term relationships, this one has reached the point where that old piss-in-my-mouth-and-lock-me-in-a-box routine isn’t quite the turn-on that perhaps it once was. Put simply, the thrill is gone.
It’s one of the seductive strengths of “The Duke of Burgundy” that, for all its surface provocation, the movie’s central relationship emerges as a surprisingly tender romance between two people who each fear losing the other, even as they acknowledge that the initial spark of passion has grown fainter over time. That’s largely a credit to the performances of D’Anna and Knudsen, who play things straight (so to speak), and who communicate volumes about their characters through the subtlest variations on their endlessly repeated scene — a structure that gives the movie a glancing connection with Jacques Rivette’s classic “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” And while not all audiences may relate to this particular couple’s efforts at renewal (including, in perhaps the most memorable scene, a consultation with a custom fetish-bed carpenter), the underlying emotions are nevertheless universal.
The women of “The Duke of Burgundy” rarely set aside their role playing, except to attend lectures at some sort of insect-appreciation society whose membership (like the cast of Strickland’s film) is entirely female. (Look closely for a couple of mannequins impishly inserted among the crowd.) Like the sound recordist capturing endless variations on a scream in “Berberian Sound Studio,” these society ladies listen to field recordings of butterfly sounds — actual archival ones, including that of the titular Duke, indexed at length in the end credits — as if they were hearing the most rare and beautiful music in the world. And then there are Evelyn and Cynthia themselves, each in her own way an elegant specimen held down by pins. Which, one could argue, makes them perfect for each other.
Sound, we’re told, is one of the most important factors in insect classification, and it’s similarly central to Strickland’s sense of cinema (something that was already evident in his 2009 debut, “Katalin Varga”). The clarity of the recording in “The Duke of Burgundy” is hyper-real, to the point that every squeak of a rusty bicycle chain, every rustle of a cotton sheet, and every bead of water dripping from that hand-washed laundry echoes through the surround speakers like a thunderclap. It’s as if sound carries its own erotic quality for Strickland, and it’s how he pulls the audience deeply into his movies’ very particular, peculiar worlds.
Knowing that so much of desire lies in suggestion and anticipation, Strickland keeps “Duke’s” most explicit acts tastefully offscreen. For a film that is in so many respects a proudly analog affair, it comes as a surprise to learn that d.p. Nic Knowland’s dense, celluloid-like widescreen lensing was achieved digitally. Screen credits include what are surely two firsts: a “perfumes by” card, and a “human toilet consultant.”