Another year, another erotic drama about sadomasochistic lesbian entomologists in the style of an early-’70s European art film. Whatever else one makes of it, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy must be applauded for its sheer idiosyncrasy. It is, like Strickland’s previous film Berberian Sound Studio, a film that fetishizes a particular niche in cultural history that vast numbers of moviegoers probably will not know or care about, but that a devoted few will recognize and for which they will share his enthusiasm. Berberian Sound Studio was an homage to the gialli of the 1970s (think Dario Argento) in which a buttoned-up British sound engineer was nearly driven crazy by the lush excess of Italian horror. It was clear from that film that Strickland knows and loves exploitation cinema—that he understands the poetry and the weird beauty of those lurid, sometimes clumsily made, occasionally downright moronic films, and that he wants to keep their traditions alive.
Where Berberian Sound Studio was a kind of meta-commentary on ’70s Italian horror, The Duke of Burgundy is full-on pastiche: from the freeze frames of its opening credits sequence to the tinkling harpsichord on its soundtrack, it looks and feels very much like it could have been made in 1970. But its points of reference are not the gialli—strictly speaking it’s not a horror film at all, even though its tone is distinctly Gothic. It’s a moody psychological drama set in what appears to be a decaying English country house where Cynthia, who can perhaps only be described as a Coral Browne type, studies lepidoptery and struggles to meet the intricately specific demands of her live-in lover Evelyn, an insatiable masochist. The film’s influences are numerous, eclectic and scattershot. At different points while watching it I was reminded of such early-70s British curiosities as Girly, The Wicker Man, and Blood on Satan’s Claw; of soft-core classics from the same period like Emmanuelle and Score; and, fleetingly, of Don’t Look Now, The Killing of Sister George, Mothlight, Barbara Hammer’s Dyketactics, the illustrated covers of old ’70s paperbacks, and my grandmother’s World Book encyclopedias.
So even though The Duke of Burgundy feels like a mosaic made out of pieces of cultural detritus—a pastiche in the literal sense of having been pasted together from thrown-away scraps—it also feels like a movie that has never existed before. I am glad, then, that it exists now. Strickland has proven himself to be such an exquisite stylist; the film looks (and sounds) sumptuous. He continues to lack skill as a storyteller, though. We’re occasionally invited to reflect on the inner lives of Evelyn and Cynthia, but most of the time they resemble the butterflies mounted on pins in Cynthia’s office: beautiful, unknowable, inert. The film suffers from other problems, too, having to do with pacing and narrative economy. Strickland occasionally gets so lost in the film’s sensuous texture that he forgets he's supposed to be driving the thing. It’s possible that he will become a great filmmaker in the next ten years. But to do so he’ll need to get better at telling stories without compromising his impeccable designer’s eye.