Photographed in the sumptuous colors of yesteryear’s art-house smut, “The Duke of Burgundy” does concern an intimate S&M relationship between two winsome ladies, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Ellen (Chiara D’Anna). And these ladies do indeed have sex, with each other. But don’t mistake writer/director Peter Strickland’s surreal, mischievous love story for mere lezploitation. I’m not sure Ellen and Cynthia even qualify as lesbians, since the film is set in a world where men don’t exist. In fact, the only masculine reference in the whole thing is the title, which is a species of butterfly.
Butterflies are Cynthia’s hobby. She’s into lepidoptery the way Ellen is into bondage and sadomasochism, and the reverse is also true. Just as Cynthia tries to be supportive of Ellen’s predilection for elaborate, multi-step bondage games, Ellen seeks to learn about butterflies so she can ask smart questions at the local lecture society. Both are game but both fall short.
Perhaps as a balance to the specific and unusual code of conduct that serve as the centerpiece, Strickland sets the film in country cottages in an indistinct time and place. The women ride bicycles and don’t have telephones, but they do have electricity, ball-point pens, and pants. It all contributes to Strickland’s fantastical, whimsical tone, and gives us permission to chuckle when things to start to seem absurd from an outside perspective.
To refrain from sensationalizing such an easily pervy premise is admirable. To depict an unorthodox love affair with such sweetness and gentle comedy is genuinely unexpected. Strickland isn’t kinky, but he isn’t afraid to acknowledge the comical give-and-take of love affairs, either. Knudsen and D’Anna are fabulously well-suited to their roles, and the joy of the film comes from discovering and appreciating the dynamics of their peculiar but relatable relationship.
B+ (1 hr., 44 min.; )
Reprinted from Portland Mercury.