You have to hand it to Peter Strickland, he doesn't make films like everyone else. The British-born, Hungarian-based writer/director makes features that are precise in both sound and vision, and use all aspects of both spectrums. If you didn't witness it in in his acclaimed second effort, Berberian Sound Studio, then you might not know quite what you're in for in his third and latest, The Duke of Burgundy.
The movie's opening scene, featuring a woman ostensibly reporting for work at the stately home of her strict boss, gives a glimpse of what will follow. Strickland and his regular cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland hone in on the details surrounding what looks to be a terse employment exchange, though apart from the meticulousness of the imagery, little is as it appears.
It's soon revealed that the seemingly dutiful Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) and the stern Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) are actually in a relationship, and that this is the first step in their regular sensual role- and game-playing. They're trying to find fulfilment by indulging their fetishes and exploring the limits of submission and domination, though the ever-curious younger woman just might be looking for something beyond her caring homebody partner's comfort zone.
If The Duke of Burgundy sounds like a puzzle waiting to be pieced together, that's because it is — as well as a study of the shifting boundaries of passion, and the way pursuing them can be both limiting and freeing. Crucial to mystery is Cynthia's real profession as an entomologist specialising in moths and butterflies, with Evelyn doubling as her student. Their shared field of interest offers much about the notion of transformation so central to the story.
A puzzle similarly springs from Strickland's use of his influences, again steeping his work in the hallmarks of times gone by — and adhering to one of the filmmaker's repeated flourishes. Where his last offering both paid tribute to and appropriated the style of Italian giallo horror movies, this time around '70s European art cinema is in the spotlight. Think decadent surroundings and a seductive mood, plus ample prolonged shots at pivotal moments mixed with flourishes of frenetically edited butterfly wings. Think a sometimes-comedic tone as well. Yes, really.
As it treads obsessively and feverishly through its tale, The Duke of Burgundy swiftly proves an accomplished and immersive work from someone who knows how to both achieve the unusual on screen and plunge viewers into a different world. It also proves a considerable showcase for the talents of his leading ladies, the former a veteran of Berberian Sound Studio, the latter perhaps best known for TV's Borgen. In lesser hands, their characters might've played as caricatures — and anyone who has watched Fifty Shades of Grey knows that that's an outcome no one wants to see. Thankfully, D'Anna, Knudsen and Strickland are as far from this year's other big screen account of erotic bondage as they can get. Once again, that's a good thing.