S&M Saves: Inside the Kinkiest Arthouse Film of the Year

'The Duke of Burgundy' turns Seventies sexploitation movies on their heads

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna in 'The Duke of Burgundy.'

About halfway through writer-director Peter Strickland's fetish-filled romantic drama The Duke of Burgundy, an elegant, wealthy lady tries to buy her girlfriend a birthday present. Cynthia (played by Borgen's Sidse Babbett Knudsen) invites a craftswoman into her lavish manor to build her younger partner, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), a dream gift: a special bed that will make her feel like she's been buried alive. But the job is going to take too long, alas, so the carpenter offers an cheaper, faster alternative. How about a human toilet?

It's moments like that — at once funny, bizarre, and oddly bittersweet—that's made Strickland's homage to Seventies Euro-sexploitation flicks one of the most talked-about films on the festival circuit. (It opens in select theaters and VOD on January 23rd.) The encounters may fall on the outer edge of kink — role-playing, water sports, enough master/servant games to make E.L. James blush — but the story of a couple trying to reignite the dying embers of their relationship couldn't be more universal. It's a movie that finally answers the burning questions you've always had regarding S&M-spiced softcore movies: Where do these folks buy their bondage gear? What if one of them has a backache? And if your lover is in the mood for a golden shower, exactly how much water do you have to drink?

"What's interesting about sadomasochism is that it's so theatrical," Strickland says. "I tried to find some humor there, but not because I'm laughing at the characters. It's more like chuckling at the practicalities of these kinds of things." His star D'Anna agrees, saying that even though Duke is set in a strange world of sexual experimentation, it's really about how people have a hard time getting on the same page in the bedroom."I don't think this film and this relationship is [necessarily] about S&M," the actress says. "It's about a couple's ability to meet each other's needs."

The project originated when producer Andy Starke asked the British director (known for his 2012 arthouse hit Berberian Sound Studio, a thriller that riffed off of vintage Italian giallo horror movies) to remake Spanish sexploitation filmmaker Jesús Franco's 1974 film Lorna The Exorcist. Strickland passed, but the offer started him thinking about the characters in the era's classy-looking smut movies, wondering what would happen if he were to "take them out of that threatening psychosexual realm and put them in one that's more tender and loving." Originally, he placed Cynthia and Evelyn in a story that he describes as "almost like social realism," paying special attention to where they lived and worked. When that approach didn't work, "I decided to go to the other extreme and just have it be so preposterous that you just don't question any of it." The result is a film takes place in a strange, almost fairy-tale world borrowed from the kind of European erotica that used to pop up on Cinemax after midnight — an aristocratic landscape of luxury with no men, no cars, and an economy apparently based on butterfly experts trading display cases of mounted insects.

Strickland compares his compulsion to reimagine 1970s trash cinema to one of his favorite rock bands, Stereolab, who've done something similar with easy-listening and lounge music: finding something beautiful, even radical buried deep in the grooves of what was once dismissed as kitsch. Just don't refer to his work "elevated," he says. "That implies you're looking down, and I don't really see it that way." Strickland laughs off the idea that he's improving the work of someone like Franco. "Many of his films are wonderful," he says. "Quite a few of them are very bad. But the best of them are unlike anything else."

If anything, The Duke of Burgundy is squarely in the tradition of the oft-disparaged, critically ignored skinflick genre. "The good ones are really strange," Strickland insists. "Basically, if you had enough sex scenes, the producers would leave you alone, so in between those scenes you could kind of do what you wanted. You find some wonderful moments in these films, there either by accident or by design."

Strickland stresses that the movie's world is not the least bit rooted in actual S&M culture. "I have no idea how people who are into that sort of thing are going to react," he admits. "I'd feel bad if they were offended. But in the end, this relationship in the movie is based on intense trust and love. Why would I make fun of that?" D'Anna, who was a geologist before becoming an actress, says she prepared for the role of Evelyn by studying lepidoptery, but shied away from researching the particulars of sadomasochism, because she agrees the particulars of these characters' desires aren't what matters. "I think what the film is talking about are the struggles Cynthia and Evelyn face."

Ultimately, The Duke of Burgundy illustrates how even the most twisted romances live or die on communication. That birthday-planning scene in the middle of the film gets a lot of laughs, because what's not funny about the idea of a human toilet? But according to Strickland, that moment is pivotal. "The specifics are quite niche," he says, "But it could be any sexual act. What I want to show to the audience is what happens when one person finds the act distasteful, or if it's just not for them. If Knudsen's character enjoyed herself, that would be fine, but it wouldn't be worth making a film about that. The story's in the discord."