With opening credits for "Lingerie" and "Perfume" hinting at the posh perversity to come, Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy doesn't disappoint. There's voyeurism, fetishism, bondage, lingerie and high-flown naughtiness galore, but that's hardly the movie's most conspicuous achievement. Also at work in this transfixing account of a sado-masochistic relationship on the ropes (so to speak) are a probing intelligence, a catalogue of inspirational cinematic references and – perhaps most impressive – a big, sad, beating heart. Certain to qualify as one of the year's more boldly unusual releases, the British filmmaker's work must be the only one to incorporate both a tissue-moistening love story and the phrase "human toilet."
Opening with a credit sequence that evokes the glory years of late 1960s-early '70s peekaboo Euro-trash (and especially gauzy, soft-core steamers such as Emmanuelle and The Story of O), the movie instantly establishes a sense of carefully balanced strangeness and familiarity. As an Audrey Hepburn-bobbed woman (Chiara D'Anna) rides a bicycle along leafy roads toward a stony country estate, the sense of time and place is both displaced and pop-culturally fixed. We're nowhere in the real world, but deep in the darker, retro dreamworld of the movies. Her knock on the front door brings a welcome from a cold, matronly beauty (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who instantly puts the younger woman through a series of humiliating chores that culminate in a singularly memorable form of offscreen punishment.
What we've witnessed, however, is just the latest of ritualized exercises in sexual role-playing the two women have worked to obsessively precise detail – which makes their mutual fascination with butterflies that much more apt – and the movie then tracks the incremental unravelling of their hermetic, erotic world. As the older woman begins to tire of the effort required to keep up the elaborate fantasy, and as it becomes clearer that the true mistress of this arrangement is the younger, outwardly submissive woman, The Duke of Burgundy unpacks its most daring gambit – to make of this finely calibrated, connoisseur fetishist's arrangement the basis for a story of human need, dependence and intimacy, to let a heart beat loudly beneath the corset.