Water sports, S&M and mind games abound in this lushly shot tale of lesbian role play, but all is not a titillating charade when it comes to the matters of the heart. “The Duke of Burgundy” takes place mostly within the cloistered confines of a Hungarian manse – a study, a kitchen, obviously “the bathroom,” the boudoir (the pair in bed shown provocatively only in reflective and refractive mirrors and metal objects) and a coffin in an anteroom – and the surrounding bucolic meadow where the lovers occasionally meander on their euro-styled bikes. Sure, there’s also the hall of academia, where Cynthia (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen) dishes her lepidopterology findings with her fellows, but mostly it’s a photo op for well-shined boots set to tedious scientific droning.
The dynamic between Cynthia and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is ever evolving. Initially Evelyn appears the part of a maid late for work on her first day. She’s obedient and demure in her duties, but under constant scrutiny and certain to make a mistake, and when she does she’s “punished” by being used as “a human toilet.” One might wince at such an act (it takes place offscreen, but the acute sound editing registers it profoundly in the viewer’s mind), but such are the games a pair in love play, and they go on to involve shining boots and being made to bake your own birthday cake without getting to eat it. Then there’s the time spent in that coffin-like chest – and through it all, Cynthia drinks plenty of water, ever ready to dispense her form of urinary discipline.
As cruel and domineering as Cynthia might seem, we come to learn it’s Evelyn who loves the games more. The first time she pleads with her paramour to “be nasty” comes as a cold shock. It’s a plea that becomes louder and more endless as the film goes on, and it seems to have no bounds – something that ultimately confounds Cynthia, who’s older and may be unable to keep up with the needs of her partner. That may be the point writer/director Peter Strickland wishes to make: Love must change and morph to endure, or that escalating stimulation is unsustainable over time.
Strickland, a stylist of the highest ilk who carved out the edgy psychodramas “Berberian Sound Studio” (about a reclusive sound engineer’s descent into madness) and “Katalin Varga” (a woman travels with her child to the town of a man who raped her), which reflected his protagonists’ inner struggles outwardly with haunting effective moodiness, does so again here, and with deeper conviction, employing smears of Ingmar Bergman (especially “Persona”), Nicolas Roeg and Jess Franco (the ’60s Spanish horror-meister) to create a beguiling interweave.
The women carry it off with aplomb, especially D’Anna, whose big brown eyes and pouty lips convey perfectly her character’s needy obsequiousness. But like the begging question of the film, set against Strickland’s increasingly scintillating visual poetry, “Duke” begins to succumb to diminishing returns as it becomes harder and harder to top itself; and the notion of “games within games” doesn’t quite pay off as nicely it could have. Still, you’re left with a wondrous spectacle, an achievement that evokes so much with so little (something I’m sure “50 Shades of Grey” won’t do). The backstory and how the two meet are left intentionally for you to decide, and while there’s not tons to go on, it’s a titillating, deepening point. So is the classification of “The Duke of Burgundy.” On one hand it’s arthouse eros for the intellectual set, on the other it possess the freewheeling whimsy of an “Emmanuel” flick, especially given that the film boasts perfume and lingerie among its credits and places them up there among the tier of producer and writer. The dreamy mock-’60s score powered by Cat’s Eyes add a hypnotic sheen. There’s a throwback element to Strickland’s work. It’s hard to place and full of rapture.