In this lush, artfully constructed erotic fantasy, writer-director Peter Strickland both engages the images and ideas of soft-core dominance-and-submission narratives while also questioning them. Chiara D’Anna plays Evelyn, a young woman who works for an accomplished entomologist named Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Moments after Evelyn arrives at the door of Cynthia’s sumptuously appointed mansion, she’s being ordered to scrub the floors, polish her mistress’s boots and launder a pile of lacy unmentionables. If she misses a spot — and, oh yes, she always misses a spot — punishment ensues in the form of a fetishistic indignity that Strickland stages discreetly behind a frosted glass door.
With its carefully curated aesthetic of faded elegance and the marked absence of such modern conveniences as cars, computers and men, “The Duke of Burgundy” seems to transpire in a time out of mind, or perhaps in one of its heroine’s most practiced, aestheticzed daydreams (an effect underscored by Cat’s Eyes’ whispery score and soundtrack).
The filmmaker is in thrall, not just to the ritual, repetition and heightened theatricality of his subject matter, but to generations of filmmakers who have gone before him, from Jess Franco to John Frankenheimer and Stan Brakhage. With so many references to juggle, “The Duke of Burgundy” sometimes evinces a belabored “project” rather than a fully inhabited story: The soft- focus double exposures and jump-cut images of moths and butterflies look fetching, to be sure, but they quickly wear out their welcome.
Still, “The Duke of Burgundy” prettily plumbs the thin lines between death and desire, power and trust. And the two lead actresses make what could have been a confoundingly cryptic exercise a believable and even tender love story, even within its severely scripted contours. Knudsen especially brings vulnerability and sympathetic seriousness to her role as someone who’s in charge, until maybe she’s not.
As a meticulously composed piece of contemporary gothic, “The Duke of Burgundy” is exquisite to look at, but it succeeds best as a human drama, and a searching investigation of how to ask for what you want — and maybe even getting it in the end.
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains suggestive sexuality
and adult themes. 104 minutes.