Two classic nesting conflicts of intimacy—between the needs of the self and the needs of partners, and between the potential liberations and constrictions of erotic fantasy—are the subjects of most sex movies to varying degrees of explicitness. They certainly drive Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. The director’s prior film, Berberian Sound Studio, was about a man disastrously stuck in his own mind, a prude who was desperate to sexually connect with someone, perhaps one of several beauties tantalizingly at the edge of his periphery. In The Duke of Burgundy, the characters wander into a similarly isolated social trap from the opposing side of the sexual stage. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) initially appear to be in an enviable situation, as they live in a remote European residence with their concerns apparently limited to their entomology lessons and to pleasing one another, though they end up nearly as catastrophically alone as Toby Jones’s unfortunate sound engineer.
Cynthia and Evelyn’s living arrangement is self-consciously suggestive of pornography, as if Strickland went down a checklist of everyday sex fetishes. Cynthia is notably older than Evelyn, which the film utilizes as an implicit source of May-December tension between the two. Similarly, Cynthia appears to be the possessor of the money and the property, which Evelyn internalizes as a pointed acknowledgement of class inequality. Both are extraordinarily attractive women, satisfying a general audience preoccupation with lesbians of the decidedly lipstick variety, and both, exotic brunettes with eyes that strikingly appear to alternate between the colors green, brown, and black, even look alike, informing their relationship with a suggestion of narcissistic incest. Cynthia and Evelyn also have a taste for kink that incorporates most of these dimensions, particularly the class issue, as they’ve devised an elaborate role-play in which Cynthia is an unhappy employer who takes to harassing and punishing Evelyn with a variety of escalating sexual humiliations.
There’s another fetish at the film’s center as well: that of the aesthetics of the dreamy quasi-softcore European sex pictures of the 1960s and 1970s, such as those directed by Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and Radley Metzger. The first sequence primes the audience for the sort of luxurious, decadent turn-on that cinema rarely offers anymore, even before any of the more outré elements are introduced. Evelyn is in the woods, clad in a school-girlish skirt, looking up at the sky through the trees, which casts light on her that’s rendered through a lens flare to resemble a great, transcendent portal—an image that will recur throughout the film in variation. Evelyn jumps on her bike, and rides toward Cynthia’s home, as freeze frames of her, bathed in dark, sensual rainbow colors, are interspersed with the opening credits. Playing over these images is the soundtrack by the band Cat’s Eyes, which is heavy in ambient female cooing that simultaneously evokes the theme from Rosemary’s Baby and, more recently, the music of Air.
The Duke of Burgundy is a major turn-on—at first. Strickland is uncommonly comfortable with the explicitly sadomasochistic Victorian fantasies of constriction and domination. The filmmaker knows just how long to hold a shot of a lace-up corset or a keyhole that reveals a woman in black panties tightening the grip of the long black boots that run most of the way up her legs. The retro cinematic formalities intensify this world’s alien-ness. There are montages of women walking through the woods in hoods (deliberately suggestive of fairy tales), interspersed with close-ups of moths, that seem to break entirely from the literal proceedings of the plot, entering into the tormented sensually addled psyche of the protagonists. And Strickland understands that sound is as important as sight: The tapping of rain drops or the rustling of bed sheets are recorded with a heightened precision that further stylizes the fantasies while also grounding them in a recognition of reality.
The audience’s focus, initially, is drawn to Evelyn, who’s revealed to be the architect of the central role-play and the true wielder of power in the relationship—her youth and the severity of her hunger serving to trump the status of Cynthia’s experience, money, and knowledge. Curiosity and titillation initially compel one to eagerly await the next page of Evelyn’s dream script. But the film gradually, elegantly, takes on a dimension of tragedy as Cynthia grows increasingly miserable trying to satiate Evelyn’s inexhaustible urges to live out one situation over and over and over. Strickland brings to life the appeals of a sexual fantasy as well as its potentially attending traps of detachment, and these dualities are best embodied by a remarkable scene where Evelyn and Cynthia lay in bed gradually waking up for the morning. Evelyn asks Cynthia to tell her something, and the latter begins to oblige with a moving proclamation of love, only to be interrupted by the former, who wants to be scolded in a manner befitting the scenario they’ve adopted. Evelyn masturbates, as Cynthia tries to honor the very specific beats of the narrative Evelyn’s worked out, while the camera emphasizes the suggestive movements of hands underneath the bed sheets.
From that encounter on, the film favors Cynthia’s perspective, seeing her not as a gorgeous and phenomenally accommodating cougar, but as a poignant middle-aged woman who’d rather have a glass of wine with her lover, and who’d rather wear something that might not so punishingly emphasize her slight belly and thickening legs. Like many male directors telling a woman’s story, Strickland is attempting to achieve empathy by a form of pronouncedly indulgent cleansing: He charges full-tilt into the objectifying whims of his fantasies in order to somehow reach the other end of perception, which acknowledges the ultimate empathetic limitations of said fantasies. Amazingly, Strickland, aided by two extraordinarily fluid and expressive performances, realizes this aim with little hypocrisy. Evelyn’s trapped in something, obsessed with ritualizing marginalization as an ironic flexing of power, and we don’t know why and it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s the sense of loss that matters. The sense of a relationship that’s cooling, threatening to take portions of its partners’ respective individualities down with it.