It’s hard not to look at Peter Strickland’s portrait of domination and desire and not feel at times like it’s a corrective to how sexuality is portrayed in the mainstream. The Duke of Burgundy, which came out with a whimper earlier this year (right around the same time as Fifty Shades of Grey) but hits Netflix this week, even begins with a nod to the softcore films of the 70s: A beautiful woman in a cape, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), rides her bike through a woodsy setting as soft pop plays on the soundtrack. The colors are super-saturated, the credits are blocky and old-fashioned; we even get the occasional freeze-frame. But that self-aware opening belies the film’s deeply felt sense of place and passion – not to mention the rigor of the filmmaker’s vision.
Strickland’s 2013 cause-celebre Berberian Sound Studio was a loving homage to Italian giallo films of the 60s and 70s, but beneath its lush, stylized exteriors was a canny tale of alienation and longing. Here, too, he uses that kind of referentiality as a starting point. Evelyn arrives at a well-appointed home, knocks on the door, and is greeted by the stern-faced mistress of the house, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who coolly tells her she’s late. Cynthia then has Evelyn perform various duties around the house, and we quickly begin to sense that what we’re watching is something else: An elaborate role-play of submission and control, in which Cynthia orders Evelyn around, and then punishes her sexually for various errors. (At one point, Cynthia holds up a pair of panties Evelyn forgot to wash. “I can wash it now,” Evelyn replies. “I have other plans for you now.” “Sorry.” “You will be.”)
Despite the odd subject matter and the oblique, repetitive presentation, The Duke of Burgundy is thoroughly immersive. You can feel the rugs and overstuffed couches and lace curtains and dusty bookshelves of the dimly lit house – it’s an immaculately presented world where everything seems to be in its place, immobile and eternal. Strickland follows the highly-regimented workings of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship with a mixture of scientific fascination and studied abstraction. He often cuts away to lovingly photographed rows and rows of butterfly and insect collections, presented like they’re more an intricate pattern than anything designed for research. Similarly, Cynthia and Evelyn regularly attend entomology lectures – but we might be more taken by the occasional mannequins interspersed throughout the audience. (The world they populate is also thoroughly devoid of men – something that’s never mentioned but lends the film an additional, subtle dose of surrealism.)
The film is erotic, but there’s no real nudity, and precious little sex. You watch these two women enact their routine role-play and you’re seized with a tenderness towards them. “Cynthia, Cynthia, this is all I ever dreamed about…to be owned by someone like you,” Evelyn says at one point, during one of their scripted caresses. There’s real longing there – uncomfortable, yes, strange, yes, but also haunting and passionate. Eventually, the interplay of submission and control reveals interesting vulnerabilities. Cynthia, the ostensible mistress, seems less certain of herself; Evelyn, the servant, is more eager, and more in control – a dynamic that’s probably more accurate about BDSM relationships than the one presented in Fifty Shades of Grey.
But in the end, what we’re watching isn’t so much a film about unusual sexual practices as it is one about the way all relationships mutate, about how a person we imagine to be one way can become, over the course of time, someone different. That's not an original idea, by any means. But, not unlike the old movies it appropriates, The Duke of Burgundy reinvents that idea to the point where it feels like a revelation. And, as a film about BDSM that uses the subject to reveal broader truths about human nature, it is without any recent equal.