Evelyn (d’Anna) and Cynthia (Knudsen) roleplay as submissive servant and dominant mistress. As the couple repeat their daily game, Cynthia starts to feel trapped in the role of sadist, while Evelyn becomes impatient with her partner’s lack of enthusiasm for tormenting her.
Writer-director Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio) creates enclosed worlds with each of his films. Typically he draws on 1970s European art and exploitation cinema to furnish his alternative universes, experimenting with visual and aural obsessions. The Duke Of Burgundy delivers a deadpan comedy of manners which is at once a surprisingly affecting study in the minutiae of a relationship both partners struggle to make work and a stylish essay in the wilfully perverse.
The Duke Of Burgundy takes place in lush, green countryside (Romania) and an exquisite yet sinister mansion at some nebulous moment in the past. It’s a world in which all men are absent or perhaps never existed (the eponymous duke is a butterfly) and all women seem to be in intricate yet absurd sado-masochist relationships.
Discreet professionals supply elaborate props like beds with concealed compartments the submissive can be locked in overnight while their mistress sleeps on top of them, and a ‘human toilet’ is a sought-after birthday present. Perhaps mercifully, we hear one of those arrangements in use but don’t see it on screen — indeed, this is very tactful and non-exploitative for a film that breaks down to 75 per cent ritualised sex scenarios and 25 per cent illustrated lepidoptery lectures.
There are obvious parallels between the life cycle of butterflies and the progress of the central relationship but Strickland also uses it to make this world stranger. Here, lepidoptery is such a generally accepted interest that lectures about the wing patterns of rare butterflies draw standing room-only crowds.
Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara d’Anna are remarkable, especially since they are required to demonstrate the changes in their relationship by minute differences in performance as they go over and over a basic script — Knudsen’s final near-breakdown as she just can’t keep up the cruelty is as accomplished a piece of screen acting as you’ll see this year.
Of course, this is a film you have to meet half-way. If you’re willing to enter its world, it’s an immensely rewarding, amusing, wise, melancholy and involving experience.