Having looked into the meta abyss with Berberian Sound Studio, writer-director Peter Strickland has shown himself unwilling to fully turn around and rejoin the oblivious masses. The bizarre world he creates in The Duke of Burgundy doesn’t spin out of comprehension quite like its predecessor, instead containing itself to the interactions between a pair of lesbian lovers who through their own volition slip away from reality by means of a dominance-submission roleplay until the master grows exhausted by her pretended malice. Strickland wrong-foots us immediately, portraying the sophisticated lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as the cruel taskmaster ordering about a feckless Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) until tiny cracks appear in her heartless facade. Cynthia starts by staring into space before her vanity. The she’s struggling into wigs and lingerie. When she has trouble staying in character, the ever patient Evelyn takes to gently nudging her back on track. The subtle reversals show how much influence Evelyn actually yields, and reveal the frayed ends of a relationship between two people who don’t fully understand one another.
Evelyn’s obsessions are made all the more stranger by Strickland’s decision to set the story in a world bereft of men. Where women are now not just at the center of, but completely make up, the intellectual and commercial cores of society, as exemplified by the scientific community the two belong to and the elegant saleswoman who makes a house call to them, Evelyn retreats from her own inherited empowerment, comfortable to carve out a place for herself beneath Cynthia, and possible everybody else. Over time it becomes harder to know when the two are following a script, but even before the two engage in what’s surely an unscripted argument, Evelyn seemingly intentionally makes a fool of herself at a seminar, rudely dismissing a valid question right before asking one of her own that proves totally pointless. For a person who appreciates the beauty of a creature that metamorphoses from ground-dwelling grub to magnificent flyer, she sure doesn’t seem to appreciate the irony of her own fetish.
Despite the eerie milieu and B-movie affectations, Strickland has fashioned a tender relationship drama, one that puts us in both women’s shoes, charging their love for one another with immense sexuality while at the same time confronting their immense fragility. You could call it exploitation if you want, but you couldn’t call it cheap. Strickland shows great respect for his two leads, both of whom are fantastic, and Knudsen in particular heartbreaking. Their casting is a masterstroke as well. Knudsen and D’Anna are perfectly suited to play their pretended roles, which makes it all the more interesting to see them play against type within the same movie.
Strickland continues to demonstrate his love of cinema with a production that emphatically synthesizes all that makes movies unique, turning in gorgeous scenery and cinematography with a haunting score supplied this time around by Cat’s Eyes. Thanks to his adoration for the minutiae of filmmaking, Strickland makes it easy to recognize and applaud the technical aspects of his own productions. It’s that kind of commitment that can take the softest, most unassuming sound in his latest movie – a polite knock at the door – and load it with the weight of the world.