[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s pick, “The Duke of Burgundy,” is available now On Demand. This interview originally ran during last year’s Sundance Film Festival.]
British director Peter Strickland is an expert at toying with expectations. In “Berberian Sound Studio,” he followed the eerie plight of a sound mixer on an Italian giallo film with a disoriented style that made it unclear whether anything we saw took place outside of the disturbed man’s brain. “The Duke of Burgundy” offers a far more ambitious gamble: It explores a sadomasichistic romance between two women — under the guise of European sexploitation films from decades earlier — by exploring the peculiar nature of their attraction without turning it into a punchline. By the movie’s end, the kinky antics are oddly heartwarming.
In an amusing feat of counterprogramming by “Duke” U.S. distributor IFC Films, the movie comes out in limited release the same weekend that “Fifty Shades of Grey” commands far greater attention on the world stage. But while that movie’s salacious content explores sexuality with a blunt stick, “Duke” takes a subtle, haunting approach. With no male characters in sight, it focuses on Cynthia (Sidse Babbet Knudsen), a moth researcher, and her partner Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). The pair engage in their fantasies by following a scripted routine that finds Evelyn playing the role of shy maid to Cynthia’s stern master. Time and again, they go through the motions: Evelyn shows up, Cynthia berates and demoralizes her; eventually, the couple hits the sack. Strickland doesn’t show the origins of this romance or the process by which the fantasy took shape. Instead, he drops us into the thick of it to sort through signposts that include an eerie tone, nuanced facial expressions and outlandish behavior until it takes on an internal logic on par with its participants’ relationship.
There’s a distinct naughtiness to Strickland’s use of melodramatic tropes in service of such an bizarre premise, but the women gradually develop a wholly believable chemistry. The disturbing nature of their romance unfolds mainly through the characters’ subjective interpretations of their relationship, which grows troubled by the prospects of infidelity and the intermingling of role playing and genuine motives. At what point does the fetish of punishment go too far? When is a safe word really a safe word? And when Cynthia locks Evelyn in a box after hours, at what point does it stop servicing their desire and instead unlock darker motives? These questions drift through each scene like the moths dotting the walls of the couple’s shadowy home. Through jittery editing techniques and a haunting atmosphere that might not feel out of place in Tim Burton’s oeuvre, Strickland delivers one of the most original romances in recent memory.
Strickland litters his narrative with cryptic elements that deepen the weird vibes. The moth obsession at one point takes over the entire movie, with beating wings filling every inch of the frame, in a direct reference to Stan Brakhage’s “Mothlight.” Strickland generates a discomfiting quality that keeps the mystery of his world in play. Above all else, he taps into the intangible elements of sexual attraction by bathing them in ambiguities.
Not since “Secretary” have the prospects of S&M behavior been given such a sympathetic treatment. Even movies designed to celebrate sexual freedoms often wind up transforming them into titilating spectacles. Strickland avoids any kind of simplistic outcome. His elegant craftsmanship, aided by a pair of confident lead performances, operates on a level of sheer ingenuity.
Devoid of men and dominated by elusive urges, “The Duke of Burgundy” offers a liberating challenge to conventional depictions of erotic behavior. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold “Fifty Shades of Grey” to the same standards, but the absence of such sensationalism in Strickland’s vision contain a unique charm that no bigger movie would dare confront.