British filmmaker Peter Strickland (‘Berberian Sound Studio’) is a star student of ’70s Eurotrash: he loves screamy Italian B-movies and the kind of soft-focus lesbian cuddling that used to titillate weirdos when we still had sex cinemas. His absorbing latest, ‘The Duke of Burgundy’, is an S&M passion play between two gorgeous women, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, the Danish PM in ‘Borgen’) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). It’s set in a village in an unnamed part of Europe and shot in the lushly naughty style made popular by a series of 1960s and ’70s movies.
On the surface, it’s kinky. Yet the longer you watch these two enact their seductions – their repeated game has them taking on roles of a persecuted housekeeper (Evelyn) and a haughty homeowner (Cynthia) – the more you realise they’ve reached the end of the affair. One of them starts showing up in the drawing room of their house wearing dowdy pyjamas instead of lingerie. They bicker, even as they head to the bathroom to perform an indignity too awful to describe here.
There’s something depressing about Strickland’s idea of taking the most out-there genre and filling it with middle-age anxieties. ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ isn’t for fans of softcore naughtiness, so much as their parents (even though there’s an experimental streak to the film, with hallucinatory scenes involving butterflies). He’s sensitive to the creep of cooling passion; the film has a traditional appeal wholly separate from its strange surface.