U.K.-based filmmaker Peter Strickland's "The Duke of Burgundy" grapples with the difficulties of pleasing both oneself and a partner in a relationship, but bound up in a way that is sensuous and unexpected, both kinky and heartfelt. In the film, Cynthia (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Italian actress Chiara D'Anna) live within the confines of a carefully constructed dynamic, based on power, punishment and pleasure. Yet as the story unfolds, who exactly is in charge turns over time and again.
The movie exists almost entirely within the tension between fantasy and reality, a fable on domesticity. So is it supposed to be sexy, or something else?
"Good question. I really can't judge that. It's really not for me to say," said Strickland during a recent phone call while in New York. "I can't say it's erotic, I can't say its anti-erotic, I just have to make the film. What I can feel confident about is knowing that it is something quite sensual, tactile. That was always my thing, to immerse myself in this world.
"I don't mind either. I'm happy with both ways of seeing the film," he said. "What I didn't want to do was tell the audience to be titillated. I didn't want to turn this into some kind of self-reflexive lechery. Should it be erotic? I was always more interested in making it quite heightened. It's not up to me to say, some things are up to the audience."
The film opens today at L.A.'s Nuart Theatre and is available on VOD. Following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it has also become something of a surprise hit with critics. The Los Angeles Times review by Sheri Linden noted how "the movie holds its beveled mirrors up to the role-play, ritual and compromise in all love relationships." In the New York Times, A.O. Scott referred to it as "a love story, and also a perversely sincere (and sincerely perverse) labor of love," while Mike D'Angelo in the A.V. Club called it simply "a romantic masterpiece."
Strickland's previous film, "Berberian Sound Studio," concerned a technician who was losing his mind as he worked on sound effects for an Italian thriller. "The Duke of Burgundy" is deeply indebted to the style of filmmaking now affectionately known as Euro-sleaze, sumptuous, slightly silly works by the likes of Jess Franco and Radley Metzger. Shot on magnificent locations in Hungary, the opening of "The Duke Of Burgundy" includes credits for lingerie and perfume.
Yet even amid the boot polishing, capes, corsetry, butterfly lectures and a meeting with a traveling carpenter (Fatma Mohamed) about a very special bed, the film's emphasis remains very much on Cynthia and Evelyn as a couple.
"For me a lot of it came from certain films from that period and wondering what they could be if they just stepped outside the fantasy," Strickland said. "Why don't we just upend that? This idea of the stern mistress, the prison warden, they're not going to sleep in their corsets. Let's see them snoring, let's see them out of character, let's see them as human beings."
As for that other upcoming tale of a couple defining their dynamic through a bit of kink, the much ballyhooed film adaptation of "Fifty Shades of Grey," Strickland is aware of but does not invite any points of comparison.
"I haven't read the book," he said. "I'm not remotely interested.
"I am aware some comparisons have been made, and it is weird with this timing," he added. "But it's not planned at all. Whenever you do something, there's always something else in the world that's similar."
Strickland will next turn to a radio play with actor Toby Jones, who starred in "Berberian Sound Studio," continuing his run of work that seems invested in the past while pushing it forward. For all its similarity to vintage Euro-sleaze or contemporary erotica, Strickland's tricky, engaging "The Duke of Burgundy" is a shade all its own.