Director Peter Strickland is a very textual storyteller. His breakthrough 2012 film, Berberian Sound Studio, employed an unnerving sound-scape to communicate the slow fissures of a lonely film engineer working on an Italian giallo far away from his English home. In his latest effort, The Duke of Burgundy, narrative again takes a slight backseat to Strickland’s visual and aural panoply. The high-pitched crinkle of a candy wrapper between fingers, close-ups of soap bubbles, or the grating swish strokes a scrub brush creates against a hardwood floor are heightened effects within the first five minutes of the film, establishing the unique universe we’re soon plunged into. Technically, The Duke of Burgundy is above reproach. It’s disappointing the rest of the film doesn’t live up to these lofty standards.
The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), two ornithologists in an unspecified but clearly ‘unmodern’ era via their sprawling, moss-covered mansion, dress, and exclusive travel by bicycle. Evelyn is the younger of the two women, and we observe as she pleasantly arrives at the mansion and is surreptitiously put to work by the older Cynthia, cleaning her floors and then forcefully coaxed into providing a foot massage.
The questionable relationship of rich woman and uncomfortable housemaid quickly darkens when Cynthia then takes Evelyn behind closed doors, where more deviant acts take place between the women. A dominant/subordinate lesbian relationship is soon understood, fetishistically observed by Strickland’s camera in a series of slow pans, gentle dissolves and double exposures, as if he were conjuring the best moments of films by Tinto Brass or Jean Rollin. No image of a leather boot being zipped up or corset being squeezed into is left unobserved.
As the partnership deepens between the women — and we even begin to wonder who’s really in charge here — bouts of typical relationship hurdles arrive. Evelyn becomes attracted to another woman (Eugenia Caruso) in the ornithology society they belong to. This drives a wedge of jealousy between Evelyn and Cynthia. There’s a very odd, almost David Lynchian meeting with a character simply called The Carpenter (Fatma Mohamed), who speaks to the women about the possibility of building a “locking bed” for Evelyn’s upcoming birthday. When that fails, there’s talk of another extremely kinky item available. It’s certainly controversial for the supposed era. Then again, perhaps the entire film is a lark, part of some magisterial role-playing the women have indulged upon for far too long, forgetting who they are and losing themselves in the process. After all, even their S&M sessions are planned out, written on note cards and acted out as if their romance were one giant screenplay.
Regardless, from that point on, The Duke of Burgundy escalates into a weird, dream-like two-hander between Evelyn and Cynthia as their varied hopes and harmonic aspirations about their love affair begin to take divergent paths.
Essentially a warped love story, The Duke of Burgundy failed to completely absorb me. As the repressed and searching lovers, D’Anna and Knudsen (both regulars of Strickland’s small output so far) are terrific, yet it felt as if writer/director Strickland didn’t trust the elemental aspects of his story, losing himself in the pastiche of recreating atmosphere and cumbrous themes. The relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia is interesting enough without the pretensions and repeated use of butterflies, both in conversation and visual touchstones. Yes, the theory ingrained within a butterfly’s transformative beauty easily lends itself to the riches of cinematic allegory, but in The Duke of Burgundy, it not only confuses, but it obscures the possibilities of exploring this relationship in more realistic and incisive terms. Like the worst attempts at homage — something imminent from the opening title sequence — The Duke of Burgundy becomes so enraptured in imitation that it forgets originality goes a lot further in exploring genre.
And honestly, who knew the local Ornithology Society was a hotbed for S&M hook ups?
The Duke of Burgundy opens Friday February 6, at The Texas Theater.