The Duke of Burgundy may be sexy, and it may be kinky, but it’s the opposite of porn. Pornography, for all its hundreds (if not thousands) of subgenres, is defined by one unifying principle: the simple fantasy that sex is easy. In The Duke of Burgundy, filmmaker Peter Strickland reminds you that sex, even the exact kind of sex you want to be having, is a sticky business. And not just because his movie involves a human toilet.
Set in a never-named European town, which seems to be populated entirely by women, The Duke of Burgundy follows two women in the throws of a passionate but heavily micromanaged love affair. Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) enlists her lover Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to be the dominant in a serious of carefully planned role playing scenarios – if you look carefully, you can see that Cynthia has her marks taped off on the bedroom floor – in which she employs Evelyn as a housemaid, forces her into humiliating housework, and seduces her by sitting on her face, urinating in her mouth and locking her in a cabinet overnight.
Which would be all well and good if Cynthia were actually into it.
The Duke of Burgundy sounds sleazy – and certainly it looks it, thanks to the luscious Jess Franco and Tinto Brass-inspired cinematography – but Strickland is after something a lot more complicated and involving than the simple, lascivious thrill of watching two beautiful women living out an extreme sexual fantasy. He invites the audience to watch the scenario play out as it does in Evelyn’s mind, an actual instance of eroticized emotional and physical abuse, before showing us the same role playing scenario from Cynthia’s perspective, watching her lovingly but uncomfortably trying to give her lover what she needs.
It’s a compromise, all relationships have those, but it leads to a disturbing cycle of resentment. Evelyn wants to live her masochistic fantasies all of the time, but Cynthia tires of wearing complicated bodices every day and looks forlorn when Cynthia scoffs at her pair of comfortable striped pajamas. Evelyn in turn wonders why she has to ask Cynthia to surprise her with random acts of sexual sadism. And although the audience giggles at the moments when little x-factors disrupt their playtime – sometimes it’s just difficult to pee on cue – they are among the most honest moments in the film. Here are two women whose romantic imaginations are too often stymied by the realities of life and love.
As with Peter Strickland’s previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, his Duke of Burgundy has the look and feel or a horror thriller. The heroines are lepidopterists whose lush mansion is filled with the carefully mounted corpses of butterflies, and the darkened corners of the frame seem to forebode physically or emotionally violent tragedy in the days to come. As Cynthia allows her feelings of inadequacy, jealousy and frustration to turn her sadomasochistic roleplaying into genuine sadism, and as they both begin to dream of nightmarish symbolism for their increasingly dissatisfying relationship, it seems that the worst is yet to come and The Duke of Burgundy is bound to pay off in a cynical phantasmagoria.
But the most beautiful thing about The Duke of Burgundy – no small feat given the incredible performances and impeccable visual design – is that Strickland appears to be using our expectations to say something genuinely lovely and cathartic about love. The Duke of Burgundy is an unconventional romance about very conventional romantic hangups that affect every long-term relationship, whether kinkiness is involved or not. It’s about the issues that arise when we demand that our lovers read our minds, even though we are too often afraid to speak them.
Berberian Sound Studio was equally gorgeous but more willfully enigmatic than The Duke of Burgundy. Here, Strickland has evolved into a filmmaker whose objectivity is used not just to illustrate the mindset of his troubled characters, but to say something poignant and stimulating about them. It’s a mature, incredibly cinematic illustration of love, frustration and sensuality. Daring in its conventionality, studious in its debauchery, and exciting all throughout.