PHOTOGRAPHED IN THE sumptuous colors of yesteryear's arthouse smut, The Duke of Burgundy concerns an intimate S&M relationship between two winsome ladies, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). 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 Evelyn 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 film's title, which is a species of butterfly.
Butterflies are Cynthia's hobby. She's into lepidoptery the way Evelyn is into bondage and sadomasochism, and the reverse is also true. Just as Cynthia tries to be supportive of Evelyn's predilection for elaborate, multi-step bondage games, Evelyn tries to learn about butterflies so she can ask smart questions at the local lecture society. Both are game; both fall short.
Perhaps as a balance to the specific and unusual code of conduct that serves as The Duke of Burgundy's centerpiece, Strickland sets the film 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 start to seem absurd.
Strickland's refusal to sensationalize 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.