The Duke of Burgundy: Studies in Lepidopterotica

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Submissives really hold the power in a BDSM relationship, it’s said, and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy pushes that truism to its limit and beyond. Demanding girlish sub Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) painstakingly scripts her fantasies — to be bossed about as a maid, used as a urinal (off-screen, out of consideration to us pee-shy types), bound in a box. Handsome, formidable Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) studies her lover’s index cards and dons the wigs and vintage undies required to enact her role as stern, punitive mistress of the crumbling country house the lovers share.

But when we see Cynthia backstage, as it were, the strain of catering to a submissive perfectionist shows. She’s gulping water, breathing deeply, barely coping, Evelyn seems more excited by their ritual with each repetition, but it’s eroding Cynthia’s soul. Domination just isn’t her kink. She’d rather snuggle in her pjs or relax to recordings of crickets.

Both women study butterflies and insects (even their safe word is “pinastri,” a moth) as does pretty much every woman in this unspecified continental town in which everyone is a woman, even the mannequin seat-fillers at the scientific lectures. The time period is similarly fuzzy, that indeterminate moment in the past where all naughty fairy tales occur. In other words, we are very much in a movie: Strickland ’s doting visual homage to arty turn of the ‘70s Euro softcore. Even the heavily-accented voices have the occasional effect of bad dubbing. True connoisseurs will certainly uncover details I missed.

But for all its decadent sophistication the film’s humor and its drama emerge from a very ordinary problem of sexual compatibility, with the stylized atmosphere allowing us to study the everyday power negotiations between lovers that realism can explain away as idiosyncratic or circumstantial. Strickland doesn’t trivialize or psychoanalyze Evelyn’s desires, though he recognizes her single-minded pursuit of those desires as a decreasingly endearing flaw.. In fact, he’s kind of a humanist softie  — Cynthia wants what the film all but calls “normal love.”

Though cutely matched to film’s lighter moments, though, the director’s own cinematic fetishism chafes as the drama up-notches. It’s an insult to Knudsen’s nuanced performance to translate her arc into Art with a lurid dream sequence, and he’s truly breaking a butterfly upon a wheel with a winged kaleidoscope effect that’s clearly intended as a directorial set piece. Strickland has effectively dramatized the toll that living out someone else’s fantasy can take;.there’s no need to make us experience that suffocating feeling ourselves by overindulging in his own fantasy. Pinastri, dude. Pinastri.

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