Pinastri, a scientific term given to a specific moth family, is the safe word for S&M lovers Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), but it’s no mistake that it also sounds like “Be Nasty” when whispered in the women’s thick British accents. That’s a strategic aural misdirection, as The Duke of Burgundy ultimately builds a parallel universe where surfaces frequently mislead. It’s also an indication of the extent to which director Peter Strickland has meticulously thought through this vintage erotica throwback-cum-oneiric psycho-thriller, which shares with Strickland’s prior Berberian Sound Studio an enterprising sense of aesthetic singularity; indeed, before one even watches the film, its stylistic DNA has likely already entered one’s mind if at all exposed to its moody trailer, complete with pinned moth iconography, and its retro-minimalist poster design. Here’s a film whose imbedded cinephilic ancestry and willingness to assertively crossbreed such reference points — Walerian Borowczyk’s softcore shockers, Stan Brakhage’s handmade celluloid strips, R.W. Fassbinder’s adult melodramas, and even a direct quote of Rosemary’s Baby, among other film-historical traces — threatens to subsume the actual dramatic content, rendering it a mere vehicle for stylistic acrobatics. Nonetheless, the undeniable otherness of the chosen subject matter — dominant-submissive role-playing in a lesbian relationship — insures that Strickland (a straight white man, it bears mentioning) is never running on representational autopilot, and accordingly, the vagaries of The Duke of Burgundy’s form are always in lock step with the psychological dynamics of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship.
With some minor exceptions, The Duke of Burgundy is tantalizing in its specifics.
The subtext lurking beneath Berberian’s shrill atmospherics was misogyny, perpetrated unthinkingly in art by thugs like Antonio Mancino’s self-important giallo director. The Duke of Burgundy, then, implicitly extends Strickland’s critique of art’s patriarchal thumbprint by virtue of being set in a subtly alien all-female universe — a Cries and Whispers-esque countryside emptied of pain-inflicting men. Also like Berberian, its narrative is fueled by control — who has it and how it’s wielded — but these questions are never as easy to answer here. A context-light prelude gives the impression that Evelyn is the abused maid to the embittered, perhaps widowed mansion-owner Cynthia, but hints of sensuous rapport (emphatic orders of a foot rubbing, excited intimations of a punishment on the horizon) eventually give way to the realization that it’s all been a proficiently acted ruse. Power shifts from Cynthia to Evelyn, then back again as Cynthia tires of Evelyn’s stake-raising demands. And so the baton passes back and forth, untidily and often imperceptibly, until the film transitions fully to an ourobouric space of diegetic and non-diegetic mantras, repeating scenes with minor variations, and a rapidly escalating sum of lepidoptery visual analogues.
Berberian pulled a similar maneuver from clarity to symphonic abstraction, but that’s where the predictability ends. With some minor exceptions (extreme close-ups of eyeballs are a creative misfire), The Duke of Burgundy is tantalizing in its specifics: one scene draws out ominous emphasis on a purring housecat, a climactic nightmare appears to take place inside Cynthia’s vagina, and eventually an ornate bit of crown molding gets recruited as a key visual motif. If the film’s finally more satisfying as a dexterous directorial exercise than a moving depiction of the fundamental give-and-take of committed relationships, it’s only because these two boldly cast actresses — great as they are at portraying transient desires and unstated friction in a vaguely May-December-ish romance — never really get to offer a convincing sense of how they may have (D’Anna with her nasally recitations suggesting a children’s librarian reading at story time and Knudsen in demure intellectual mode) sustained their relationship outside of the fetishistic escapades. Mileage will vary on this last point, but few should dispute at this stage that Strickland is a guy with vision.