I appreciate Peter Strickland’s horror-adjacent mood pieces without quite loving them for the same reason I’ll always prefer a live butterfly to one pinned behind glass. His films are lushly appointed, handsomely crafted, and stuck airlessly behind a distancing layer, framed, mounted, and gathering dust. Sure, the patterns are intricate, lovely to regard and interesting to contemplate. But what I’d give to see it stretch out and flap its wings once in a while! Strickland’s a master of sustained atmosphere, as his latest, The Duke of Burgundy, percolates with unspoken tensions as characters explore the emotional terrains in which they find themselves. It’s fascinating as an exercise in style, and an acting workout, but interests me more theoretically than in actuality.
The film takes place almost entirely in the country home of a woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who studies butterflies and moths for a living. The walls of her office are covered in their framed forms, stuck there making a perfect metaphor for anyone trying to write about a film that looks great but just never clicked for them. As the film starts, she scolds her maid (Chiara D’Anna) for arriving late, then for slacking off on the job, then punishes her by forcing her to perform a series of intimate exchanges. They aren’t merely maid and taskmaster. They’re lovers engaging in a kinky roleplay, living out their scripted scenarios day after day. Over the course of the film, Strickland repeats their routine, allowing the replications to accrue small shifts, opening up differences between them and their desires.
Spaces between the performances are close and subtle, trading on the intimacies of a relationship deeply felt in the specificities to reveal the slight differences between their expectations that threaten to push them apart. This is a film about a relationship between people with particular needs, but the particularities contain wider truths. In their roleplay is a literalized expression of negotiations and trade offs in romantic entanglements of any kind. Relationships are about discovering how best to be the person your partner needs without sacrificing your needs in the process. It’s about the balance between control and release needed to make their relationship, or any, work. Here we see a woman who gets revved up by, say, being bound in a trunk at the foot of her partner’s bed, then whispers in the middle of the night that she needs to be let out. There are few characters – and no men – in this movie, a decision that nicely restricts the emotional range to a tight focus on one compelling pair and their decisions.
Those midnight whispers floating out of the darkness with ghostly sibilance are part of what gives Strickand’s controlled mood and style its horror-adjacent qualities. The lifecycle of the relationship on display is sharply defined and methodically studied, much like the creatures they study are categorized by their behaviors and fixed biological impulses, signals and responses. But it drifts into dreamy creepiness at times, especially in hazy overlapping dissolves, and in a knockout nightmare that comes near the end and culminates with a series of shots looking like a giallo guest-directed by Stan Brakhage. Throughout the film there’s something so precise, so clinical about the precision of the staging, the pronounced sound design that makes shifting fabric, pouring water, or a purring cat loud and strong in the mix. Combined with Nicholas D. Knowland’s sumptuous cinematography’s rich colors and artful framing, it’s like a straight Bergman drama borrowed the atmosphere of a 1970’s Jean Rollin softcore horror picture.
This sounds like a premise that could easily be campy or smutty (or both). But here it’s refreshing to find what are such tricky areas handled seriously and sincerely. This is a film of strong acting and exquisite craftsmanship in pursuit of teasing genre nods and fully articulated subtleties. I saw that, and appreciated it, without ever quite getting on its wavelength. Like Strickland’s last film, the Foley-artist walking-nightmare movie Berberian Sound Studio (which puts these qualities into a marginally pulpier context), The Duke of Burgundy is surface beauty disturbed by rough undercurrents. Strickland is a writer-director making films of strong aesthetic choices, intoxicating style evoking interesting ideas. They’re too good to ignore, but they’ve yet to win me over. He’s great at making and sustaining a tightly controlled mood, but after a while luxuriating in the suffocating style, my interest starts to drift. They’re striking, but static.