The metaphor governing Peter Strickland's eccentric Duke of Burgundy (2014) is an entomological specimen -- a butterfly or massive moth pinned through its body within a glass case. Although this conceit doesn't make much sense of Strickland's S & M melodrama, it does clarify the form of the film and its aspirations: Strickland is a collector presenting for our delectation the corpse of a soft-core Eurosleaze film, circa 1975, pinned through its belly and tastefully arrayed under glass. Eurosleaze, the genre favored by such notables as Jesse Franco and Jean Rollin featured idyllic landscapes, dark baronial castles, and topless maidens cavorting in Sapphic abandon that always threatened to become violent or, even, deadly -- focus was soft and blurry; the mise-en-scene casually dreamlike; and the sex, almost entirely off-screen and, therefore, imaginary, was generally perverse. These films were all a morbid tease with lilting soundtracks, sun-dappled walks in the park, and dubbed voices moaning in ecstasy. (Franco who also specialized in zombie films ended-up more hard-core, directing sadomasochistic female concentration camp movies.) It's a tribute to The Duke of Burgundy's scrupulous authenticity that the dialogue, such as it is, sounds dubbed.
In some vaguely Hungarian or Czech village, a group of austerely clad women have gathered to study entomology. They meet at intervals to listen to lectures on bugs. The lectures are delivered by fierce-looking dominatrices in shiny jackboots. Evelyn, a mousy little woman, rides her bicycle to the vine-shrouded manor where Cynthia lives. Cynthia is severely dressed and she is constantly drinking water so as to better urinate in Evelyn's mouth. Evelyn knocks on the door, is met by Cynthia, who, then, orders her to perform menial household chores. One thing leads to another and Evelyn has to be punished. The film repeats this scenario with only tiny variations four or five times. Evelyn controls the ritual, writing demanding notes to her mistress on 3 x 5 cards. She is a bossy slave and persnickety -- she doesn't like it when Cynthia snores. Evelyn hauls a big chest into the bedroom and forces Cynthia to lock her in the box every night -- even from within the casket, Evelyn is exceedingly bossy, waking up Cynthia with the hissed demand, "Be nasty!" Ultimately, Evelyn is bored and contrives a session of boot polishing with another harsh and cruel lady-entomologist, Dr. Schuller. This leads to a crisis in the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia, some hard words are exchanged, and Evelyn agrees to be more spontaneous in their love-making -- they deviate from the fixed scenario but, after a while, it is just simpler to revert to their previously well-established rituals. Cynthia, who has to play the role of the cruel mistress, seems sad and put upon; Evelyn constantly orders her around, probably, because the baronial manor, in fact, is Evelyn's home and she seems to be the world-renowned entomologist in the couple. All of this is filmed with the utmost languor -- slow tracking shots linger on lingerie and glistening leather surfaces; the casket-like box has a sinister presence; and the women's love-making, to the extent that it is shown, is generally revealed in a mirror poised somewhere in a candle-lit room. The film's surface is gorgeous in a conventional way, soft light and haloed rim-shots of luminous hair, sun-dappled exteriors. The S & M rituals, comprising most of the film, are intercut with various shots of moths and butterflies in flight, pupa emerging from cocoons, grubs burrowing through deep rich soil so chocolaty in color that you feel like you could eat it with a spoon. The entomological imagery doesn't exactly match anything in the film and remains a puzzling tangent that never really intersects with the arc of the narrative such as it is. (The conclave of women could be bicycle enthusiasts or hydraulic engineers -- the fact that they spend their time in dusty libraries reading about crickets and moths seems arbitrary.) The film has the strength of its own peculiar convictions -- there are no men anywhere visible in the picture and, indeed, no suggestion that there is anything like another (male) gender in this exclusively female world. The closing titles are funny: the film features "entomological collections from natural history museums in Hungary" and not one, but two, "human toilet consultants."