The Duke of Burgundy is the kind of specialized, fetishistic item that doesn’t just list a credit for costume design, but for lingerie and perfume, too. Director Peter Strickland, a Hungary-based Brit, never explains what “Je Suis Gizella” smells like. On the basis of his third film, which draws from the more decadent strains of 1970s sexploitation, I’m guessing: wildflowers, leather, and a few drops of perspiration.
The film starts off innocently enough as timid servant Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) goes about her business on behalf of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an imperious lepidopterist (the title refers to a type of butterfly). Cynthia tosses wrappers on the floor and demands foot rubs, but as in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, appearances can be deceiving. The women are playing roles, and Cynthia’s bitch act, which includes confining Evelyn to a coffin-like box, conforms to Evelyn’s orders.
As in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Strickland bypasses pat explanations for impassive, sometimes surrealistic observation. He also excludes men, lending the film an unearthly feel. While Cat’s Eyes’ alternately enchanting and ominous score ebbs and flows, the borders between reality and fantasy melt. Or is that part of the game, too? As cinematic head-fucks go, The Duke of Burgundy is exquisite stuff.