I have not seen the film “Fifty Shades of Grey” (or read the bestseller on which it is based), but I doubt that it evokes the mystery, wit, and eroticism that Peter Strickland’s sumptuously claustrophobic fable of women in love does. All without nudity, bad dialogue, or the requisite wooden acting.
In a hermetically sealed universe that seems like an “Emmanuelle” sequel dreamed up by Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), play games of power and submission.
Cynthia, the older woman, takes on the dominant role. The aristocratic denizen of a lonely chateau, she orders Evelyn to perform such mildly demeaning tasks as washing her mistress’s underwear. Cynthia sometimes punishes Evelyn behind a closed door, the latter’s cries of pain or pleasure barely audible, when she does not perform her tasks perfectly. Which she never does — otherwise, what’s the point?
But Evelyn, played by D’Anna with a feral innocence reminiscent of Maria de Medeiros, increasingly takes charge, especially when Cynthia does not seem up for the game, or shows faint enthusiasm for Evelyn’s insistence on being tied up and locked in a coffin-like chest, or purchasing an ominous-sounding “human toilet.” Cynthia will muff her lines, and a close-up of her face expresses recognition of the futility of this repetition compulsion. The rules break down, as when Cynthia accuses Evelyn of polishing another woman’s boots, and the jealous tiff blurs the line between ritualized and real desperation.
Along with the intense and nuanced performances and the oblique, circular, sometimes non-sequitur narrative, Strickland’s style, which is both eclectic and sui generis, pushes “Duke” into the realm of dreams gone bad. As in his hallucinatory, underrated “Berberian Sound Studio” (2012), in which a sound engineer descends into madness while dubbing a cheap Italian horror film, Strickland here orchestrates sound and image to induce a sense of dislocation and of immanent revelation. The ritualized drama takes place in a setting that is of the psyche but also densely organic. Thick ivy covers the walls of the manse, and though the interior scenes are filmed with the pristine clarity and elegant composition of a Vermeer, the idyllic exteriors press in with a claustrophobic menace. A sparkling brook feeds into a pool choked with lily pads, and an inviting forest path is swallowed in the distance by overarching tree boughs. The outside reflects an overgrown and alien subconscious.
And then there are the bugs. Cynthia is an entomologist, author of a treatise on “mole crickets.” She tutors Evelyn in the subject, and they study in an office adorned with countless rows of pinned moths, butterflies, bugs, and pupae under glass. The couple attend lectures about entomological esoterica, with arcane diagrams, along with an audience of other women, some of whom prove to be, on closer examination, mannequins. These scenes have the absurd clarity of the women’s garden club sequence in John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). Ultimately, living moths gather and swarm, filling the screen with their hum and an abstract, kaleidoscopic pattern of throbbing life.
Sexy stuff. In the deepest sense. Unhealthy erotic stimulation for the mind.