As he demonstrated in “Berberian Sound Studio,” Peter Strickland is a talented sculptor of cinematic mood and a serious fan of vintage European exploitation flicks. “The Duke of Burgundy,” his Sapphic tale of domination and submission, is nothing if not a mood piece, but amid its atmospherics and winking asides, it’s also a fascinating portrait of a relationship.
Actresses Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen make a compelling duo. The latter, best known to American audiences for her lead role in the Danish series “Borgen,” delivers a knockout performance in her first English-language feature.
She plays the statuesque entomologist Cynthia, who lives in an Old World manse amid a lush countryside somewhere on the Continent. (The film was shot in Hungary.) The unspecified time period feels like a dream state, circa 1960. Her study brims with artfully pinned specimens, and she lectures on insects at an institute where everyone is female, including several mannequins in the audience — the movie’s most overt touch of the surreal.
Venturing over the top only in a nightmare sequence, Strickland builds a sensual ambience through inventive visuals, a rich soundtrack that includes field recordings of crickets, and no nudity but plenty of elegant lingerie.
Repetition proves essential. A scenario involving Cynthia and her “maid,” Evelyn (D’Anna), unfolds in increasingly revealing variations. Evelyn’s apparent victimization turns out to be something else entirely: With her need for particular forms of punishment, the younger woman calls the shots. The most shocking bits are unseen but unambiguous.
Knudsen is mesmerizing as the reluctant sadist, conveying everything from reproach to heartache. For all its S&M specificity — down to earth and sometimes comical — the movie holds its beveled mirrors up to the role-play, ritual and compromise in all love relationships.
“The Duke of Burgundy.”
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles.