Peter Strickland's 2012 film "Berberian Sound Studio" was an homage to Italian giallo horror films on its surface, but underneath it was an arthouse picture through and through. You saw it for the sound design as much as you did for the screams. And while his newest feature, "The Duke of Burgundy," has a plot synopsis you could mistake for a "Fifty Shades of Grey" knock-off, it likewise simply provides the framework for a rich, sensual cinematic experience for more open-minded audiences.
When we first meet Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), she appears to be working as a maid for Cynthia (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), a cruel and severe older woman who abuses Evelyn mercilessly for any minor faults in her housework. However, we quickly discover that the relationship between the two women is far more complicated, involving a consensual sado-masochistic arrangement where it's ambiguous as to who actually is in control. Despite the highly sexual subject matter and much discussion of erotic activities, there's very little nudity or objectionable onscreen content to speak of. Instead, this cinematic seduction is all about aesthetics and atmosphere, about the sound design and the art design, the costumes, the music, and the glowing cinematography.
As with "Berberian Sound Studio," there is a very clear, strong narrative, but the storytelling is often impressionistic and indirect. Aside from a humorous interlude involving a bedmaker, Cynthia and Evelyn are almost never straightforward about what they want from each other, so the film often clues us in on what's really going on in their heads via carefully orchestrated action and reaction shots. The first time we see their daily routine, the film tells one story. In subsequent repetitions and variations, the camera lingers on their expressive faces, glimmering soap bubbles, troublesome garments, and delicate moths, and the story becomes something very different. "Burgundy" builds its best moments from scintillating sensory impressions. It provides a kaleidoscope of heightened images, sounds, and moods that reflect the emotional journeys of the protagonists, while letting the director indulge in all the lovely stylistic exercises he so enjoys.
Strickland's love of 1970s cinema is apparent from the very first frames of the dreamy opening sequence, where Cynthia traverses the rural countryside on her bicycle, halted occasionally for freeze-frame shots accompanying the credits. The tempo of the music is unhurried and lulling, the lighting design soft and nostalgic. I wasn't familiar with either of the lead actresses, who are excellent, and if it weren't for some of the more elaborate CGI-aided special effects, I could have easily believed that this really was a film from the '70s, some long-lost exploitation flick from an especially artful European director. It's simultaneously high-minded and playfully trashy in the best ways, creating an intimate, private world of entomology lectures and fetish equipment.
However, the most vital thing Strickland gets right is that the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia comes across as genuine. Though their desires are more extreme and their acts of devotion more unusual, the women struggle with very familiar relationship troubles. Wants and needs, boundaries and emotions, and the constantly shifting give-and-take between the two have to be carefully balanced. Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babbett Knudsen have wonderful chemistry together, and it's easy to understand their attraction even when they're at odds with each other. The many-layered, very physical performances are fascinating, particularly the roleplay elements and the often contradictory nature of how Evelyn and Cynthia express their feelings.
I think there's enough going on here that most viewers would enjoy "The Duke of Burgundy" on some level, in spite of all the lascivious trappings. It works perfectly well as a serious art piece and as a more titillating form of entertainment at the same time. It worked for me as a poignant romance. This is the best portrayal of a BDSM relationship I've seen on film in some time, and it's certainly one of the most gorgeous. I like that it doesn't ask why, or how, or try to explain Evelyn and Cynthia. It simply gives us a little window into the inner emotional reality of a pair of unusual lovers, who it turns out aren't quite so unusual at all.