Starring Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen. Rated 14A.
In The Duke of Burgundy, the sensibilities of 1970s Europorn are filtered through Nabokov, A. S. Byatt, and the Brothers Grimm, with natural science—specifically, the collection and study of butterflies and moths—the starting point for an exploration of human sexual dynamics.
Written and directed by the U.K.’s Peter Strickland, who delved into a more overtly horror-filled oeuvre in Berberian Sound Studio, the film was shot in Hungary with a small cast speaking lightly accented English. Both films owe as much to the severe formalism of Stanley Kubrick, who likewise was fascinated by power roles but not terribly interested in genuine heat, as to the soft-core S & M of The Story of O.
Here, with little nudity but a lot of stylized attitude, the emphasis is on the hard work of eros, within a cloistered world from which men are excluded and where all women happen to be gorgeous, dark-haired, elegantly groomed lepidopterists. (The title refers to a species of European butterfly.)
The fable begins with black-caped Evelyn (Italy’s Chiara D’Anna) riding her bicycle through the woods toward the lush château of Cynthia (Danish veteran Sidse Babett Knudsen), where she seemingly works as maid and BDSM plaything. But it isn’t long before we see who’s really pulling the strings. A series of handwritten index cards and scenes repeated with minute variations reveal the tediousness of role-played ecstasy-seeking. Sometimes, when your back hurts and your feet are tired, you want to skip the handcuffs and go straight to cocoa and pyjamas.
The relentless emphasis on aesthetics makes for a hypnotic experience. (The film’s dreamy music, featuring Canadian soprano Rachel Zeffira of Cat’s Eyes, certainly goes with that Just Jaeckin vibe, and there’s even a credit for perfume.) Beneath the ornate art direction and kinky, unisex symbolism, however, Burgundy examines the nuts and bolts of all relationships facing the test of time.
Cynthia is slightly older than Evelyn, but no one here is past their physical or sexual peaks, with the notable exception of a dowdy cleaning lady who looks quietly askance at all these zoological shenanigans. She’s played by Monica Swinn, famous as various predators in many Jess Franco pornos of four decades ago. While she’s raking leaves and beating blankets in the background, her fierce glances seem to say, “Enjoy it while you can, you fools. This too shall pass.”