Sidse Babett Knudsen in Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy.” | SUNDANCE SELECTS
Lesbians, lepidopterists, and S&M practitioners form an overlapping Venn diagram of sorts in “The Duke of Burgandy,” writer/ director Peter Strickland’s arch and ecstatic romantic drama. The film takes its visual cues from 1960s and ‘70s European arthouse softcore — think Radley Metzger — and its aural sources range from butterfly sounds to soap bubbles popping.
The film opens with Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) bicycling to the home of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). After Evelyn rings the doorbell and waits two minutes, Cynthia answers.
“You’re late,” she scowls, and brings her maid into the living room, and adds, “Did I say you could sit?,” when Evelyn positions herself on the couch. “You can start by cleaning the study,” Cynthia commands. “And don’t take all day this time.”
Lesbians hew faithfully to their S&M roles in Peter Strickland’s fantastical romantic drama
The scene, it is revealed, is a master/ slave routine — there is even a notecard detailing precise instructions and dialogue — that the women perform for their erotic pleasure. Their role-playing even involves Cynthia denying Evelyn the opportunity to go to the toilet, as well as a “punishment” that takes place behind the closed bathroom door when Evelyn fails to hand-wash Cynthia’s panties properly. Hint: it explains why the mistress is always drinking large glasses of water.
“The Duke of Burgandy” plays out this and other S&M scenarios several times and not just for the dark amusement it gives the characters and the audience. Strickland is emphasizing the power positions of the two lovers. Evelyn admits how grateful she is to be “used” by Cynthia, a woman who is all she ever dreamed about but never thought she would find. While Cynthia is anxious to please her lover with her discipline, the film shows her veneer is starting to crack.
Evelyn’s happiness is dependent upon Cynthia being unhappy about her maid skills at boot polishing, panties laundering, and house cleaning, and then chastising her for it. In bed together, Evelyn is aroused not but her lover whispering sweet nothings to her, but by Cynthia giving her a verbal spanking. When she pleads to Cynthia to use “more conviction” in her stern reprobation, it is both funny and telling.
One of the film’s best sequences involves Evelyn’s meeting with a female carpenter (Fatma Mohamed). The carpenter describes a bed that allows the lovers to sleep on top of one another, noting that it takes eight weeks to construct. Evelyn is disappointed at having to wait, but when the carpenter tells her about another product to facilitate the couple’s water sports, she becomes more enthusiastic. Such moments are among the film’s charms.
The superbly controlled performances Strickland gets from his lovely actresses are what makes the film so captivating. That they rarely break character is part of the film’s fun. When Evelyn expresses disapproval about Cynthia wearing clothes not suitable for her dominating role or an act of betrayal is discussed, the moments play like a lovers’ spat, but they could be part of the couple’s role-playing. The ambiguity is quite delicious. Likewise, the film’s narrative — which repeats scenes and images and includes several hypnotic sequences, including one that begins and ends with the camera zooming into Cynthia’s dark crotch — suggests a variety of interpretations.
Precision is both the style and subject of “The Duke of Burgundy.” Shots of pinned butterflies underscore the dominant/ submissive relationship between the women, who are often reflected in glass and mirrors. There are voyeuristic scenes of Evelyn looking through a keyhole to see Cynthia getting dressed, which mirror Evelyn looking at a specimen under a microscope. (The film’s title is the name of a butterfly species.) And there are shots of the women’s lovemaking, some discreet, others explicit.
We see several episodes of women, Cynthia included, lecturing about butterflies at seminars made up entirely of women, even if a few are just mannequins — in line with Strickland’s offbeat skewing of reality.
As the film builds to a climax, the lovers start to discuss their relationship more honestly. “It would be nice if you did it without having to be asked” each of them says to the other. Cynthia is talking about getting a massage for her injured back, while Evelyn wants her lover to lock her in the trunk at night.
The film’s sex and S&M scenes are more about explicating the dynamics of the women’s relationship than in simply showing off their eroticism. But the cinematography practically drips with dreamy romanticism, and “The Duke of Burgundy” yields considerable sensual pleasures.
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY | Directed by Peter Strickland | Sundance Selects | Opening Jan. 23 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com