Adventurous San Diego filmgoers will have the option of seeing two S&M-themed movies this weekend (yay!). One of them you know about: Fifty Shades of Grey was a literary phenomenon for repressed housewives everywhere and will get plenty of audience play at the box office. But the kinky cinematic escapade you should see on Valentine's Day is British filmmaker Peter Strickland's wildly elusive The Duke of Burgundy, a beguiling and gorgeously shot love story between two women set in a forested alternate universe where men don't exist. It feels transported directly from the projection booth of a broken-down 1970s art-house cinema.
Viewers familiar with Strickland's previous film, the Giallo-inspired horror oddity Berberian Sound Studio, will recognize the freeze frames, rapid-fire cutting and flashy stylistics at the forefront of The Duke of Burgundy's opening sequence. Images flutter in furious succession as Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) rides her bike through the lush countryside while the haunting score by Cat's Eyes offers a perfectly menacing musical echo. Lens flares give way to close-ups of worms and other insects rotting away in the soil. There's nothing like a little decomposition to get the juices flowing.
Fast and furious, these dynamic compositions mirror the wings of the exotic moths that play a symbolic role later in the film. When Evelyn arrives at the rustically posh house of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to perform cleaning services, their erotically charged exchange hinges on the fantasy of submission. Something is amiss between these two, and Strickland plays with our expectations for a good amount of time. It eventually becomes clear that this is all a performance, some kind of structured foreplay to incite a rush of excitement in their romantic relationship. But one of these players needs it more than the other.
Despite its seemingly exotic setup, The Duke of Burgundy resembles many other melodramas about couples experiencing the daily frustrations of an uneven power structure. The older of the two, Cynthia suffers from back pain and appears exhausted by the games that Evelyn loves so much. Like an actor who's forced to read the same lines again and again, her flair for the dramatic turns stale and wanting. Whenever Cynthia's onscreen, Strickland favors a more traditional visual framework. She's growing out of this phase while her significant other is only falling deeper into the void.
As Evelyn's taste for theatrics grows more extreme, Strickland represents her perspective through the sensory-fueled montages of voyeurism and seduction. Psychedelic shifts in perspective turn sweaty sex scenes into potential nightmares. These women are entangled on a level that could be dangerous if misinterpreted by one or the other. That's exactly what happens when Cynthia turns increasingly weary and Evelyn keeps pushing the envelope. The result is a tangled web of sensual imagery colliding with the hard reality of two people slowly growing apart.
Humiliation replaces all other motivations, as witnessed in a late sequence where Cynthia finally turns the tables on Evelyn. Here, Strickland reveals just how askew their romantic expectations have become. The Duke of Burgundy comes to this point not through spite or anguish but repetition; the salaciousness of their activity was never really salacious at all, simply a means to an end for emotional survival.
This is where Strickland's 2009 drama Katalin Varga feels like an indirect influence on The Duke of Burgundy, which opens Friday, Feb. 13, at Hillcrest Cinemas. Both films, albeit in very different ways, deal with a woman's struggle to retain power and identity despite having it stripped away through acts of sexual manipulation. Whatever the relationship, someone always compromises her true self in order to make her lover feel complete. Like Cynthia, one must decide whether or not the subterranean heartache is worth it.