Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) cycles through the forest to the country house and stops at the front door, which is eventually answered by the lady of the manor, entomologist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who informs her she is late, but invites her in anyway. Then Evelyn must set about her chores, as her mistress is very strict, cleaning the rooms on her hands and knees while Cynthia reads and eats chocolates, even dropping the wrappers on the floor for her to pick up. But there comes a time when Evelyn displeases her for her inevitable shoddiness and carelessness in her work, and must be taken into the bathroom for punishment. Only this is precisely what she wants, such are the games of domination and discipline the women love to indulge in...
After offering his oblique, vivid rendering of the Italian giallo genre in Berberian Sound Studio, director and writer Peter Strickland opted to plunge his audience into another style of vintage exploitation moviemaking only with a typically arthouse flavour, consciously raising the intellectual level of what was regarded by all too many as almost worthless. That style this time around was the sexually-charged dramas of the nineteen-seventies, a point when censorship worldwide was opening grand vistas of sex and violence, though while there was that aforementioned discipline theme to the storyline here, there was no bloodshed as Strickland concentrated on putting his own spin on efforts by the likes of Jess Franco, Walerian Borowczyk or Radley Metzger.
Among loads of others, but that particular setting of the rural that many of these chose for their narratives was in keeping with then-current trends of getting back to nature and making the most of any bucolic location to hand. In this case the place was Eastern Europe, and though the actresses spoke English they did so with Continental accents as befitting their origins; but that's right, only actresses spoke in this because while there were a few instances of all-male casts, The Duke of Burgundy was an example of an all-female cast, at least as far as the human beings were concerned. This was what marked it out from the first ten minutes as taking place not in some real world, but in a land of sexual fantasies, though whether they were dreamed up by a woman or a man was debatable.
You could tell this by the trappings of strangeness the film frequently lapsed into, be they mannequins dotted around the audience at one of Cynthia's talks to the locals, or more strikingly the outright dream sequences where Strickland's other interest in experimental works came to the fore as he recreated the forms of the decade's pioneers in non-narrative cinema as inscrutable interludes. But then there was also by the way that Cynthia and Evelyn are carrying out the same play acting scenarios over and over, much as favourite sexual fantasies are returned to in the mind, replaying the same events all with the ultimate goal of reaching orgasm. There's only one of those in the movie, and it's in a scene that takes place in one shot of the leads' faces.
There were hints of what else the ladies get up to, some more subtle than others - just why, you could ponder, does Cynthia need to drink all that water before taking Evelyn into the bathroom for her ultimate "punishment"? Well, maybe you don't ponder it too long, yet when signs the troubles of the real world are intruding they do affect the fantasies, as they would when you're inventing this sexual wonderland and you've embarrassed yourself in public that day, or the fact that you have a bad back, or simply because you've had an argument and it's pressing on your mind. All these factors demonstrate how fragile the inner life can be, and Cynthia's age - she's older than her partner - worries her too as she wonders if she can keep up with Evelyn. As much of this is on the surface, leaving you to discern the meanings yourself, there is one scene that is striking in that it makes you realise how well acted this has been: when the washing the panties sequence is replayed with a dramatic role reversal. Again, there was not much like this gem, it was even funny ha ha. Great music by Cat's Eyes.