By Adam Nayman
A stray line about a “Dr. Viridiana” early in The Duke of Burgundy gives the game away: after the giallos humour of Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland is chasing Luis Buñuel. Not with too much urgency, mind you: on the basis of his three features to date, the British writer-director is less interested in precise pastiche than evoking the baseline sensations of movies gone by. Of all the eccentric aspects of this mostly plotless and resolutely anti-erotic relationship study about live-in lady lepidopterists deeply into role-play, the one that sticks out most is how out of time the movie feels, at once contemporary and quaintly dated (the opening credits are luxuriously Tinto Brass-ish, for instance). Strickland is a cheeky bugger, and a lot of The Duke of Burgundy is deliberately silly: when petulant Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) petitions her deceptively submissive older lover Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) for a “human toilet” to top off their lushly appointed hillside home, the saleswoman silently and solemnly illustrates the designer item’s functions with hand gestures that suggest a ZAZ gag. And yet for all the abstruseness here about moths, safe words, skeletons and sadomasochism—not to mention the almost science-fictional aspect of the film’s all-female universe, in which men are neither seen, nor heard, nor pined for—there’s something melancholy about Evelyn and Chiara’s rigorous, elaborate, and absurd bedroom gamesmanship, which finally seems an attempt to control the waxing and waning passions between committedly monogamous partners. Desire as an infernal loop—come to think of it, it’s very Belle de Jour.