Kinky films work best when they touch our own ordinary lives rather than remaining trapped inside erotic echo chambers. Few well-to-do housewives were likely to supplement their routines with stints working in a brothel, à la “Belle de Jour” (1967). But many could identify with the depths of her boredom and the richness of her fantasy life. Similarly, the appeal of “Fifty Shades of Grey” may be the goings on in “the red room of pain”. But its success is probably owed to its timeworn theme—a strong but damaged man saved by the love of a good woman. And Peter Strickland’s new film, “The Duke of Burgundy”, pulls off the same trick. Despite having a lesbian couple keen on S&M at its centre, it has the fundamental truths of all relationships at its heart.
Strickland sympathetically recreates the woozy focus and pastel shades of Seventies erotica with the same deft touch he brought to “Berberian Sound Studio” (2012), his homage to Italian horror films. The costumes also evoke this romanticised version of the early Seventies, but there are few other clues to the era—no cars or watches or phones—or the location: they could be in Central or Eastern Europe, or even rural France. A deliberate decision, perhaps, to give his story universal appeal. Within these wide parameters the world Strickland conjures is small: a home—manorial, creaking and full of cases of mounted insects—separated by a short bike ride through a rustling wood from an entomological institute. When not playing house, the lovers attend talks on butterflies (including the Duke of the film’s title). The audience for these lectures is entirely female; in fact, there is not a single man in the entire film. Two women, the lovers, dominate the screen. The film the trailer suggests—a thin erotic tale of a maid, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), overcome by the icily sexual lady of the house, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen)—is burned through in a puff of perfumed smoke over little more than half an hour. What follows is richer, more plausible and far more subtle.
We soon discover the power dynamics in this relationship are not as simple as they seem. (Are they ever?) The fantasies played out by the couple are entirely for Evelyn’s gratification. The supposedly reluctant maid minutely scripts each scene on notecards, which she hands to Cynthia, who uneasily plays her role as a stern and exacting mistress of the house. (Who they are and how they met is never revealed; but we do know that it is Evelyn who bought Cynthia her alluring wardrobe of girdles, seamed stockings and high heels. Cynthia is more of a cotton pyjama kind of lady.) The role-playing can be sordid: when Evelyn intentionally forgets to wash a pair of chocolate-coloured satin panties, Cynthia is directed to take her errant lover into the bathroom, tell her to lie down and open her mouth. From behind the closed door, the audience hears the gentle tinkle of liquid, followed by a gurgling splutter. Strickland is mercifully aware that clarity is the enemy of eroticism.
The film loops back and forth in time as Evelyn’s fantasies are replayed and worked over again and again by the couple. But their little scenes of dominance and submission become, even to Evelyn herself, increasingly threadbare and unsatisfactory. For Cynthia they become ever more distressing: by the end, she is as uncomfortable in her role as she is in the tightly laced lingerie. Despite loving each other, they sense that they can’t happily fulfil the other’s desires. It’s a dawning realisation which even those with less specialised sexual appetites will be familiar with.
The Duke of Burgundy is in cinemas now