The Duke of Burgundy

A young maid (Chiara D'Anna) approaches a lavish country estate, walks inside, sits down and awaits instructions from the middle-aged woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Borgen) who owns the place.

“Did I say you could sit?” the woman snaps.

The maid quickly stands, and is tasked with a series of chores: cleaning a floor, polishing boots, washing laundry and so on. Eventually, the homeowner discovers that the maid has made a mistake (it seems she neglected to wash a piece of underwear), and determines that the maid must be punished. The homeowner drags the maid into the bathroom, shuts the door and – judging by the sound effects we hear, anyway – proceeds to urinate in the maid's mouth.

The maid and the homeowner are actually lovers named Evelyn and Cynthia, and this is part of their daily routine. They're both lepidopterists (translation: they study moths and butterflies), and they live in some sort of strange alternate universe that seems to be entirely populated by wealthy, well-dressed lesbians (many of whom have unusual S&M fetishes). Intriguingly, Cynthia – who plays the role of the Dominant in the relationship – is actually the more submissive one in many ways, tentatively engaging in domineering behavior at eager young Evelyn's request. Alas, with each new session, the roleplay gets a little more challenging: Cynthia's heart isn't in it, and Evelyn is struggling to conceal her frustration.

Most people won't identify with the specifics of Cynthia and Evelyn's desires, but that – along with the decision to set the film in a world other than our own – is a deliberate choice made by writer/director Peter Strickland. Like David Cronenberg's Crash, the film creates a fairly obscure fetish scenario so that whatever particular fetishes the viewer might have won't interfere with their ability to see the thematic ideas the film is digging into. Look past the bizarre trappings of this world and dig beneath the lurid surface of the story, and you'll find one of the year's most relatable depictions of a committed relationship. This is a film about the compromises we have to make in order to make our partner happy... and about the limitations some of us have to set in order to keep ourselves happy.

The central idea at the core of the film – a tug-of-war between two people who love each other, but ultimately want different things out of a scandalous relationship – was also at the core of 50 Shades of Grey, but this film is vastly more nuanced and thoughtful in the way it explores that notion. Surprisingly, it's also less sensationalistic: despite the shocking aspects of this relationship, the film's depiction of sexuality is understated and tasteful. There's essentially no nudity in the film, though the opening credits do offer a prominent “Dress and Lingerie by...” credit (amusingly enough, there's also a “Perfume by...” credit, which almost makes sense when you consider what an evocative atmosphere Strickland creates).

Strickland's previous feature was the technically impressive but ultimately perplexing Berberian Sound Studio, which starred Toby Jones as a sound engineer who accepts a job that turns increasingly bizarre and nightmarish. This is a more lucid, purposeful film, but retains the elements that made Berberian so striking: handsome Giallo-inspired cinematography, memorable music and sound design (the wonderfully dreamy, European-shaded score is by the alternative pop band Cat's Eyes), moments of nightmarish imagery (there's a moth-themed sequence in the third act that ranks as one of the most memorable things I've seen this year) and a very distinct series of interior (and occasionally, exterior) settings. The film has a slow, smartly repetitive rhythm, repeating a lot of shots over and over again in order to accentuate the things that change over time.

Obviously, this is one of those Not For Everyone movies, but I suspect many viewers will be surprised by just how much of a personal connection they feel to this bizarre scenario. Yes, one character may be asking another to sit on her and read a book for hours on end, but what she's really asking is “Can we go see that movie you don't really want to see?” or “Would you mind doing the dishes?” or “Can we invite those people you dislike over?” This is an honest, exceptional relationship drama wrapped in butterflies, expensive undergarments and sadomasochistic flourishes. I didn't expect a movie containing several conversations about “human toilets” to be quite so touching.


The Duke of Burgundy

Rating: ★★½
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 2015