Even if you've never seen or heard of a movie called She Killed in Ecstasy, isn't it lovely to know that such a thing exists in the world? That 1971 eroto-thriller was a creation of prolific, Spanish-born writer-director Jess Franco, who had a lasting career making florid B-movies with sordid plots and voluptuous actresses, the most famous of whom was sultry-sweet vixen Soledad Miranda, who died prematurely in a 1970 car crash. While She Killed in Ecstasy is certainly OK as a movie, it's that trembling, evocative title that's the true work of genius; the shivery dreams it inspires are worth their weight in see-thru nighties and shimmery pantyhose. That's the spirit tapped by English filmmaker Peter Strickland in his wondrous erotic study The Duke of Burgundy, a love letter to the super-softcore '70s fever dreams of European directors such as Franco and Tinto Brass, with a splash or two of Buñuel daubed behind the ears.
There's no killing in The Duke of Burgundy — at least, not the literal kind — but there's plenty of ecstasy, all of it taking place on the grounds of a cozy-luxe estate, which the movie's press notes situate "somewhere, sometime in Europe." It is there we meet the cruel orthopterist Cynthia (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen), a 50ish temptress with a penchant for polished, reptile stilettos and pencil skirts that turn her derriere into an approximation of a Grecian urn. Cynthia tyrannizes her meek maidservant, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), a junior lepidopterist with full, quivering lips, whose own predilection involves nanny capes and schoolgirl blouses. After completing a series of demeaning chores, Evelyn believes she's done for the day, only to have Cynthia announce that she has a pile of dainties that must be laundered — by hand. Dutifully, Evelyn submerges the sweet little nothings into a bath of iridescent soap bubbles. She leaves each hanging to dry, only to be confronted by Cynthia, who dangles a scrap of silk before her like a flag of shame. Evelyn has missed one lone satiny knicker; she must be punished accordingly.
Nothing, of course, is as it seems — because what ever is? Cynthia and Evelyn are engaged in a sultry game of cat-and-mouse, though it gradually becomes clear who has the stronger jaws.
The Duke of Burgundy might have stopped at being a lush work of parody, and a pleasingly effective one at that. But Strickland builds it, artfully, into a complex and ultimately moving essay on the privileges of victimhood and the nuances of what it means to suffer for love.
Strickland takes the world he's built, and the characters he's created to live in it, seriously: He and cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland dip freely into a big bag of visual tricks, coming up with an assortment of daydreamy soft-focus effects and gently disorienting double-vision images. At one point we see the lovers, entwined in a state of ambrosial dishabille, reflected in a hazy, oval antique mirror. Cynthia and Evelyn's fortress of love and power games is so close to us yet so tantalizingly out of reach — they've drawn a circle big enough only for the two of them, and while we can't enter their opiate world, the contact high is unavoidable.
Outside, in the public world, Cynthia and Evelyn are entirely different creatures — their libidinous butterfly wings go into hiding. They spend a great deal of time in the lecture hall of a local entomology institute, where Cynthia herself gives a talk — she knows more about insects than you can shake a stick bug at. But even there, jealousies and resentments erupt. Evelyn can't help noticing the gleaming black boots of the imperious Dr. Schuller (Zita Kraszkó), who hosts the weekly proceedings. How wonderful it would be to polish them!
Don't think Cynthia doesn't know what Evelyn's thinking. Knudsen and D'Anna, both superb, follow the story's gently shifting tones like dancers: D'Anna's Evelyn is small, dark and seductively treacherous, a petite, sympathetic monster in boarding-school garb. Knudsen, as a woman whose body is just starting to go soft with age, is her perfect complement. Her slight fleshiness only heightens her vulnerability — in middle age, allegedly the time when we're supposed to be confident and wholly sure of ourselves, she's a girl without a carapace.
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Strickland's last movie, Berberian Sound Studio — in which Toby Jones played a shy sound engineer drafted to work on an Italian horror movie — was a wily little treasure, a thriller steeped in the sensuality of sound. The Duke of Burgundy takes Strickland's obsessions one step further: The closing credits give due to every field recording — including every cricket chirp, every piercing moth song — used in the movie.
One of Strickland's strengths as a filmmaker is that he can admit his obsessiveness is a little ridiculous, and he lets us know we're allowed to laugh. (You really don't want to miss the scene involving the traveling custom bedmaker.) The costumes — brilliantly designed by Andrea Flesch — suggest that Strickland really likes lingerie. And capes. And how can that be bad?
This is also the only picture I've seen that includes a perfume credit. What, exactly, does The Duke of Burgundy smell like? I detect notes of sandalwood, citrus and rose, with a touch of musk. In short, it smells like a bittersweet dream, the kind you're reluctant to emerge from.
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY | Written and directed by Peter Strickland | Sundance Selects | Nuart