A movie review of “The Duke of Burgundy”: Filming in Hungary, amid crumbling mansions and overgrown forests, director Peter Strickland conjures a lush utopia populated entirely by women.
Here are two somewhat contradictory things I can tell you about “The Duke of Burgundy,” which takes its name from a species of butterfly. It is, I’m fairly certain, quite unlike any other Sapphic S&M lepidoptery-themed psychological romance you have ever seen. At the same time, though, its uniqueness rests on a passionate, you might say slavish, devotion to a particular cinematic style of the past.
Peter Strickland, who seeded this exquisite hothouse flower of high-toned eroticism, is unabashedly fetishistic in his love of old exploitation movies. His previous feature, “Berberian Sound Studio,” was at once a love letter to the Italian horror films of the 1970s and a record of its main character’s encounter with the world that spawned them.
The characters in “The Duke of Burgundy” inhabit a carefully imagined alternate reality where film seems not to exist. Bicycles, manual typewriters and slide projectors are the only machines anyone needs. Still, the grainy voluptuousness of the images and the sighing languor and exquisite décor in which these characters dwell conjure an atmosphere of pseudo-aristocratic post-’60s grind-house Euro-sex.
‘The Duke of Burgundy,’ with Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna. Written and directed by Peter Strickland. 106 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. SIFF Cinema Uptown, through Thursday, Feb. 12 (also screens at the Film Center at 6:45 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6).
The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.
Filming in Hungary, amid crumbling mansions and overgrown forests, Strickland creates a lush utopia populated entirely by women. The typical household consists of a pair of lovers who are also (or who at least assume the roles of) a gentlewoman scientist and her dutiful, sometimes purposely incompetent maid.
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Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) belong to such a ménage, and Strickland is principally concerned with the exploration of their sexual practices and domestic routines. There is the hint of a plot — involving the waning and waxing of affections and the threats posed to bliss by jealousy and boredom — but the film is less a story than a succession of subtly differentiated moods.
What gives it momentum is the audience’s gradual discovery of the dynamic between the two women, a daily cycle of ritual and release.