If you see just one BDSM movie this Valentine's Day, make it The Duke of Burgundy. Peter Strickland's touching and provocative film about love and bondage premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and, on the surface, the similar subject matter (there's ritual punishment in a sexual context, and a character trussed and confined to sleep in a wooden chest) will invite comparisons to paler-grey fare, but this romantic masterpiece is much more than 50 shades of burgundy.
As with his suspenseful sound puzzle Berberian Sound Studio, British writer and director Strickland creates a world so whole it has its own scent, Je Suis Gizella – a wink to films like Paris When It Sizzles, which credits "Miss Hepburn's wardrobe and perfume by Givenchy." The detail appears in the opening credits to immediately set a stylized tone. What does the fictional perfume smell like? "It's invisible," Strickland says with a chuckle. "It's more like a pheromone and puts people under a spell."
To further that feeling of reverie, the movie's time period is deliberately ambiguous, but it has the diffuse and grainy amber look of late-1960s European art films, helped along by the remote Hungarian estate setting and Strickland's "vague" visual references for the costumes, such as Helmut Newton's fashion photographs of women in capes and lacy jabots.
Its characters are also under a spell – a sexual one. Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, the riveting prime minister in the Danish political drama Borgen) are entomology enthusiasts who live on a remote estate in a sort of utopian rural community of women. They role play, with Cynthia in the role of sadist scripted in detail by the younger masochist Evelyn.
An antechamber houses Cynthia's gear of sensuality – the gossamer stockings and restrictive satin corsetry, the velvety washed-silk chemises – that functions as a sort of actorly dressing room. "That extends to some weird similarities between masochists and directors, in terms of just the control we need," Strickland adds. "If Cynthia says a line and if it's slightly off-key, it's just killed the fantasy for Evelyn; if it's slightly off-key, it kills it for me when I'm directing. It was interesting finding these parallels with performance and trying to extend it by even putting tape on the carpet in the dressing room, so that Cynthia has to walk forward and hit her mark for Evelyn peeking through the keyhole."
Watching them repeat – and repeat – the ritual even as it splinters isn't meant to titillate. "It's exploration of how people with different sexual needs find compromise," Strickland says. "I didn't want to wag any fingers. That's for the audience to decide when they come out of the film, to decide who's being unfair on the other. Is it unfair for Cynthia to do an activity she finds repellent? Is it unfair for Evelyn to hold back her desires?"
That the dynamic is between two women handily sidesteps preoccupations with gender roles and power imbalances, but it's also because Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was a strong influence. "When I first saw it a long time ago I naively didn't know that there was a relationship, I just thought she was a secretary being treated like dirt and felt so sorry for her! By the end of the film you realize that she enjoys that – that's their exchange."
Duke offers similar observations about the dynamics of desire, and what happens when the dominant lover is no longer strong. "In cinema it is very standard that the dominant man or woman is inherently dominant and everything is supporting that fantasy," he adds. "And I wanted to puncture it with showing a reluctant domina, but also a lot of tenderness. They do these things which maybe some people find alienating, but there is a trust involved." One scene, for example, about their safe word, is quietly devastating. "That's exactly what I find fascinating – the masochist fantasizes about that. About truly having no control, but they have to script their lack of control into it, and that's the whole paradox about masochism. When she really is punished it's just shocking for her and deeply, deeply humiliating and distressing, in a very non-sexual way."
That doesn't mean The Duke of Burgundy isn't also funny. It's got love, sex, lingerie – and a wicked sense of humour. Strickland had attended the premiere the night before and was happy that at certain scenes the audience laughed on cue. "The last thing I want to do is make fun of people's sexual needs," he says, "but what is funny is that if you try to enact any fantasy, it is ridiculous. Anything behind closed doors, as much as with Berberian the idea of foley [sound effects] is absurd. It was a case of taking these things we all know about – these S&M stereotypes – and somehow pitting them against the pragmatics of being tied up. Of being tied up and then getting a mosquito bite."
The Duke of Burgundy opens Feb. 13 in Vancouver, then other cities throughout the winter.