(Peter Strickland, UK/Hungary, 2015)
Strickland's pastiche-cum-melodrama-cum-metaphysical fable goes wrong from the beginning. It imagines itself as being everything but what it most effectively is: a reasonably compelling study of a faltering romance. There are moments when the interplay between the two lovers breaks into sharp, psychologically revealing material, but this rare virtue is made prominent by the moody filler that surrounds it. The two actresses do an admirable job with their roles, which are minimal but at least potentially strong; after all, the subject of the film is performance itself. But Strickland overshoots in his attempt to artify the story, which he treats with an obscurantism and a severity that becomes reactionary, if unintentionally so.
We can easily generalize from the film's subject: all love affairs, and even casual relationships, contain inner dynamics of power, which remain mostly submerged, iceberg-style. In The Duke of Burgundy, these dynamics are made explicit, and are then tested. Desire is intensified through ritual and overt power, compressing its energies like a spring. Strickland understands the appeal of this kind of role-playing, which plays openly with violence and coercion. It's dangerous, and danger is sexy, but it's also never without a certain amount of absurdity. Strickland touches upon this absurdity, and it results in some of the film's best scenes. But he's more interested in the dark side, in the proximity to death, and the film tilts into airless, dreary portentousness. It's not that the death angle is wrong - it's just that it isn't explored with genuine artfulness or daring. Strickland isn't comfortable, or else he's unable, to go beyond poses and into actual confrontation. As a result, the film, like the relationship, is hobbled at the outset, locked into a cold, stifling rigidity. When the breakdown comes - when one of the characters can't keep up the act - it's not surprising. It's hard enough to watch a stuffy, meandering arthouse movie, let alone live in one.
Strickland is so concerned with not appearing salacious that he never allows his imagination free reign. So he sticks to a series of formulae, and even those don't comfortable mesh. Certain stylistic touches are self-conscious pastiche, like the title sequence; even the subject itself - sado-masochistic lesbian lovers! - is a boldfaced throwback to 70s Euro porn/art fare. Why choose this approach? It's novel, I suppose. I don't think Strickland has any better reason. But it jars with the rest of the film, from its occasional glimpses of psychological realism (again, the best stuff in the movie) to its decorative interludes of nocturnal insects, which comes off as a stab at high-minded metaphor, just vague enough to appear profound.
One of the axes of power in the lover's relationship stretches between refined cleanliness and excremental filth. Kudos to Strickland for "going there," which he does (sort of), but the style of the film betrays his essentially conservative vision. Too often, the scenes are lit and staged with the chilly glow of a fashion spread. There's barely a speck of dirt in the whole film - at least none that we can really see. This tidiness amounts to a kind of self-censorship on the part of the director. The immense forces at work behind the lovers' games are left un-invoked, and the messiness of that desire's birth into form, the extremity of such a pursuit, are only hinted at. It's a fascinating subject, and Strickland cast a couple of fascinating leads: Chiara D'Anna and Sidse Babbet Knudsen both radiate intelligence and emotion. But he doesn't pursue the more compelling and strange aspects of the story, settling instead for a tease.