The first challenge in talking about The Duke of Burgundy is describing it. I think it is a tremendously great film; but the sort of people who would be most likely to agree with me aren't the people who'd be most easily seduced by hearing the basic details of its scenario, and the sort of people who'd be apt to check it out based on its scenario are very much not the people who'd respond well to its actual content. To both of those groups, I offer the same warning/comfort: while there's no doubt at all when the one woman is peeing on her female lover, you don't actually see it. In fact, for a movie that's so exclusively about a lesbian BDSM relationship that I literally cannot think of a single word to add to that summary, The Duke of Burgundy is astonishingly free of sex, and there is not a meaningful speck of nudity. It is instead entirely about the emotional dynamics that feed both sides of such a relationship, and the dissatisfaction that both women start to feel around the same time, but for totally different reasons. It is an odd thing that the two best movies about romantic relationships released in America in 2015 (Carol is the other one) should both be about lesbians, and both directed by men, but there you have it.

The director in this case is also the writer: Peter Strickland, making his second feature in his native English, after 2012's Berberian Sound Studio. Superficially, the two films beg to be compared: they're both self-conscious stylistic throwbacks to Continental exploitation filmmaking of the 1970s that use the audience's anticipation of those genres as a trick to smuggle in a complex psychological study instead. There it was gialli, the inordinately stylised, gory murder mysteries made in Italy; here's it's plain, good old-fashioned Eurosmut. In case "the woman pees on her lesbian lover" wasn't enough of a tell. Certainly, the opening credits to The Duke of Burgundy are a hilarious, pitch-perfect homage to the model of Emmanuelle and all the films that followed in its wake; but TDoB keeps up its interest in genre experimentation much less than Berberian Sound Studio did, and to its very clear benefit. It's stronger as a dramatic text and as a work of cinema across the board compared to Strickland's last film; the characters are more precisely defined and effectively moving, the spaces more thoughtfully designed to bring the interior conflicts out to the open, the frame of the camera used with greater impact (if less showy flair), and the lack of such overt genre game-playing allows this movie to be its own thing more or less from the start, rather than gesturing rather noncommittally in the direction of being some completely other thing.

I am loath to start really spelling out what's going on, since part of the film's great pleasure lies in how it revolves around the plot in a kind of spiral shape, always moving gradually closer to the subjects without diving right at them. Right from the first scene, the film is weighing what is against what we suppose, and it creates a heightened level of engagement and work that are very much to its benefit. But the short version is that Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is an entomology professor, and the much-younger Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) is one of her students, but also her lover. Evelyn has a fetish for being the slave in BDSM role-playing games, and demands that Cynthia humiliate and abuse her in various ways; but key to her receiving the full sensation of these experiences is that Cynthia presents the abuse as though it were her own. Plainly, the irony of being forced by her "slave" to perform this role isn't lost on Cynthia, and around about the time we meet the characters, she's started to run out of the energy necessary to keep up her role in the partnership. Evelyn is going through a little crisis of her own: the same old routine isn't doing it for her anymore, and she wants Cynthia to ramp up the abuse both in intensity and florid creativity.

The Duke of Burgundy isn't really about BDSM relationships - that is to say, it's not limiting itself to the particular power dynamics involved in that culture, but using them as a proxy for how relationships in general work, and that includes both their sexual and romantic dynamics. The film's world is heightened to normalise Cynthia and Evelyn's partnership: there are no male characters, and this kind of high-level master/slave relationship is apparently common enough that there's a queue for ordering highly specialised hand-carved beds with punishment chambers beneath the mattress, and the wholly unflappable carpenter (Fatma Mohamed) who makes them can apparently support herself solely on that market. That, plus how little interest Strickland has in depicting anything prurient, go a long way towards stripping the kink out of the central relationship; the film is interested in how people interact, not in leering at erotic weirdoes, and God bless it for that. It's absolutely terrific at this more intimate and less voyeuristic goal, owing both to its very careful, thoughtful screenplay, and the excellent performances of D'Anna and Knudsen - the latter especially, making what I believe to be her first feature in English (she's a Danish actor), and handling the language and accent without the slightest hiccup, leaving us to focus instead on her disappointed, self-doubting expressions and creased brow, her sense of annoyance with Evelyn that quickly turns into disgust with herself at being annoyed.

It is, in short, a wonderful study of how much work it takes to contribute your part to a relationship, and recognising that some of the things that your partner absolutely requires are not of the slightest interest to you. So the question becomes, do you fake it, or do you let the relationship end? The Duke of Burgundy is less interested in the answer to that question in this particular case, than in the mental process by which the two women contemplate it in their very different stages of life.

This all accomplished in the matrix of a very uncanny, otherworldly art film, with a savagely limited color palette, limited camera movement, and a deep & abiding investment in offscreen space being defined by exaggerated sound. All of the perspective-warping subjectivity tricks that Strickland played with in Berberian Sound Studio show up here in some capacity, and there's something that we might, for want of a more conventional term, describe as a mental breakdown, but one expressed solely through the form of the movie than through what happens in the plot or how the actors depict it. I'm not sure that I could explain it more clearly even if I wanted to.

The point being, the overall feeling of The Duke of Burgundy is of extreme stillness and closeness, unto the point of parody. For all that the characters and their interests are accepted with almost bland indifference, this is still a deeply weird movie, with its pacing, visuals, and soundscape (including an outstanding score by Cat's Eyes) that feel slightly offputting, all in different ways - the images distance us and suck some of the life out of it, the soundtrack puts us unnervingly close in - and all contribute to a very rattling sense as one watches the film. It's subjective in a particularly fascinating way: not by putting us in a character's POV, but by forcing us to feel, cinematically, a kind of nervous dislocation akin to what the characters might be feeling in that moment. It's some of the most sophisticated filmmaking of the year married to one of the most humane, insightful stories, and the overall experience is wholly enthralling.