Like a Moth to the Game: Cynthia and Evelyn play out their scenes ad infinitum.
Like a Moth to the Game: Cynthia and Evelyn play out their scenes ad infinitum.

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If The Duke of Burgundy, a love story about two wealthy lepidopterists, took place in modern times, you’d imagine that one or both women might hide a Cosmo within the covers of their butterfly books, learning “10 Ways to Spice Up Your Relationship!” instead of the latest on monarch larvae. Cynthia and Evelyn, you see, have caught the seven-year itch. Or, more specifically, the not-the-bad-maid-and-human-toilet-thing-again itch.

“Human toilet” is not a phrase you expect to hear—more than once—in a film that’s so misleadingly Merchant-Ivory-esque that a “Perfume by” credit is nested in the opening, right alongside big guns like the producer, writer, and director. The latter two are Peter Strickland, and his creation is part romance, part erotica, and part absurdity, whipped together and sifted through a giallo filter.

We first meet Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) as she bicycles up to an ivy-covered country home. (Clothing and other details suggest that the film is set in perhaps the late 19th or early 20th century.) “You’re late,” says Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who then directs the apparent maid on where to clean. She’s stern, Evelyn’s obedient, and soon, lingerie is involved. Just some role-playing, with the women going behind closed doors when the roles drop like so many panties.

But then they play out the scenario again, day after day, over and over. It’s a surprise to discover that Evelyn is actually the dominant one here, leaving Cynthia ridiculously detailed instructions on how to act, and how to “punish” her. You can see the boredom in Cynthia’s eyes. (And, in one funny scene, her bafflement when Evelyn pleads for dirty talk and Cynthia runs out of things to say; Knudsen is a marvel of nonverbal expression throughout.) She’s not the only one growing weary of their games, however. “Try to have more conviction in your voice next time,” Evelyn chastises at one point.

Meanwhile, moths are everywhere, including a surreal scene in which a zombie-like Evelyn disappears into a room full of them, with Strickland’s camera-work recalling the Stan Brahkage short Mothlight. What does it mean? Well, that’s a headscratcher: If there’s a metaphor here, good luck finding it. (Though once you glimpse mannequins sitting among an audience of real women in a lecture hall, you may just shrug off these touches as indulgent Dadaism.)

There’s one easily misinterpreted detail that’s important to get right, however. Evelyn is frequently heard calling out or whispering in voiceover—some parts of Burgundy are rather Tree of Life, complete with self-serious pretension—“be nasty.” Which makes sense, considering her sexual preferences. Really, though, Evelyn is saying “pinastri,” a type of moth that’s also the couple’s safe word. Big difference there.

The Duke of Burgundy is scored by Cat’s Eyes, with atonal, hard-to-identify instruments emitting music that recalls horror films and soprano vocals that contribute to the overall sense of la-di-da that’s hiding the twisted. Just when the plot seems to be getting sinister, though, Strickland pulls his punches, and it’s a disappointment.

Because it must be said: Evelyn’s a whiny brat, her frequent petulance even more pronounced when contrasted with the older Cynthia’s sophisticated, practical demeanor. When they consult a custom-furniture maker who specializes in fetishes, Evelyn pouts after hearing that a bed wouldn’t be ready by her birthday. “It’s OK. There will be another birthday,” she finally says. It doesn’t take long to side with the exasperated Cynthia and want to punish her, too.

The Duke of Burgundy opens at West End Cinema on Feb. 6.