Blue is a masochistic color in Peter Strickland’s sumptuous, surreal, serenading, and audaciously superb film “The Duke of Burgundy.” It’s a masochism that loves to tease and toy with gratuity, but never steps over the line, and one that is underlined by a bottomless depth of love between two women, not entirely unlike Abdelatif Kechiche’s ground-shaking Palme d’Or winner. Where the two films diametrically diverge, however, is in the spirited style and boundless freedom to indulge. Following up on the critically praised “Berberian Sound Studio,” Strickland stirs his love of Giallo cinema and sinister atmospherics in a cauldron containing the tastiest potions available in cinema, and creates a spell that had us hypnotized, immersed, and still awestruck. It’s the kind of movie that has us falling in love with movies all over again.
The film begins with a tease. During the few brief opening moments, it almost makes you believe that you’re about to watch a competently shot yet seemingly common film. A woman (Chiara D’Anna) is sitting by an idyllic brook, enjoying a moment in nature. And then, with its opening credit sequence, the film vivaciously blossoms into something special. While a contagious song bordering on eerie melancholy plays on the soundtrack, she bikes to her lover’s castle over a wonderfully retro-styled opening title sequence. She enters, where her alpha-female lover (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is waiting to command, order, and punish her whenever necessary. The idiosyncratic mood doesn’t let the viewer get carried away with laughing too hard, but there is something undeniably amusing in watching the elder, dominant lover order the younger one to clean the house, wash her laundry, and massage her feet. A trip to the bathroom is the punctuation mark. When night falls, the two ladies withdraw to the bedroom, and the tenderness soaked into this scene makes matters clear; they are role-playing lovers.
“As long as I am yours, I remain alive,” coos Evelyn, the younger, in sensuous voice over. The love between the two is undeniable, real, almost spiritual. Cynthia makes her living as a lepidopterist, specializing in a variety of butterflies and moths, and takes Evelyn to her conferences. The latter is genuinely enthused with Cynthia’s vocation, but is all about being degraded, commanded, and punished when they come home. As the layers peel, we begin to notice the cracks; Evelyn’s demands are starting to take a toll on Cynthia, who is beginning to lose a grip on her performance and begins to feel the pangs of age.