By Alex Greenberger
“The Duke of Burgundy,” Peter Strickland’s excellent third feature film, reveals itself slowly. It begins as an S&M-inflected lesbian romance and ends as a psychological horror movie. How or why the film progresses that way is something of a mystery, and that’s exactly how it should be.
At its start, “The Duke of Burgundy” seems to be about Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), a doe-eyed cleaning lady for Cynthia (Sidse Babbett Knudsen). Evelyn is told to start by cleaning the study of Cynthia’s estate, which is fighting a losing battle to the overgrown ivy on its facades. She does it, but for a woman as severe as Cynthia, it is not enough. Cynthia makes Evelyn scrub the floor and wash her underwear. Finally, dissatisfied with Evelyn’s performance, Cynthia walks Evelyn to the bathroom, shuts the door (which looks more like the cinderblock wall of a jail cell), and proceeds to pee in Evelyn’s mouth. We realize where this has been going — it was Cynthia seducing Evelyn all along.
And then we find out that that was not the truth at all. Using her girlish cursive handwriting, Evelyn has written out a list of instructions for Cynthia, who is a scientist studying butterflies and has actually been having a fling with Evelyn for a while now. Evelyn is not a cleaner either. She may be a student — we never find out what her role is in Cynthia’s life.
Her notes to Cynthia are the kind of thing most filmmakers would use for exposition, but not so for Strickland, who already proved his knack for elliptical, ambiguous stories with “Berberian Sound Studio,” an homage to ’70s Italian horror films. Like that film, “The Duke of Burgundy” deprives its viewers of necessary information, and viewers don’t realize they needed those details until much later on. When and where does the film take place? It barely matters — the point is to become confused and disoriented by it all.
In the sense that it evokes a hazy, sexy atmosphere, “The Duke of Burgundy” successfully emulates the style of Tinto Brass and Russ Meyer — two filmmakers who worked in the ’70s and were known for their crude bacchanals. Today, Brass and Meyer’s films would be considered tame in a time when “Game of Thrones” enthusiasts can get eyefuls of lesbian sex by tuning in every week, but back then, those films were dirty. And while “The Duke of Burgundy” never so much as hints at nudity, it has odd sex acts aplenty.
Unlike Brass and Meyer, however, Strickland is a thinker. “The Duke of Burgundy” is primarily focused on style — it has little dialogue and relies heavily on images. Each shot feels precise, though none ever gives away too much information. Strickland repeatedly shows shots of butterflies, for example. Filmed through slow zooms, they’re metaphors for Cynthia and Evelyn — they control each other and often literally pin each other down.
Even if these sequences of butterfly shots are showy allusions to experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s “Moth Light,” they explain what we see in a way perfectly suited to Strickland’s subject matter. “The Duke of Burgundy” makes its audience fight for its right to enjoy the film. Viewers can either give in and let the film wash over them, or they can argue with Strickland’s moody vision by interpreting everything. For a film about the way people control or submit to each other, that’s strangely perfect.
Alex Greenberger is Editor-at-Large. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.