You wait ages for a domination/sadomasochism film to come along and two turn up at once. Peter Strickland's follow up the brilliant Berberian Sound Studio is a disappointing affair.
velyn (D'Anna) is the mousy housemaid to the bossy lepidopterist Cynthia (Borgen's Knudsen). Cynthia likes to order her around, taking pleasure in humiliating and even torturing Evelyn when she doesn't do exactly what she's told. But Evelyn is a masochist, revelling in the abuse, spying through keyholes as Cynthia undresses. As she whispers to herself, her desire to be owned, to be used, is fulfilled.
ut then in a clever reversal, Strickland reveals that Evelyn and Cynthia are lovers and they engaging in a little role-playing, the stilted and stiff dialogue explained away as actors playing characters playing actors working from a 'script' with dialogue that's not exactly Tarantino. But there's more: it's Evelyn that's calling the shots, with the older Cynthia hanging on to this pretty young thing.
trickland has sly fun with it all. From the seventies sexploitation opening credits, to the time and setting that's deliberately left unestablished, to the women breaking character because life gets in the way (feeling silly from something that happened earlier in the day) or a mosquito has slipped into the box/coffin Evelyn is locked in, there's a wry smile underneath it all. There's also a visually arresting montage of silhouetted moths, the sound of their wings flapping increasing in volume to a distressing level.
he director explores the idea that the role playing will ultimately lead to boredom, that eventually a relationship needs something deeper. In a slow-burning progression, Cynthia's impatience grows: As she taunts Evelyn in character, saying, "I'm not happy with you," she's not pretending.
ut despite the sex, the domination, the sadomasochism, the foot fetishism, and voyeurism and whatever else, The Duke of Burgundy, a reference to the butterfly that's lifelessly (and metaphorically) pinned, is boring. It's flat. The dialogue doesn't improve despite the women moving off 'script', and there's no chemistry between the leads. But then they aren't playing characters that engage, but ciphers to understand.
tickland has overthought things this time out.