by Yours Truly
Let’s start with what I love about this movie, what I absolutely, unequivocally, and without reservation adore about The Duke of Burgundy (2014, dir. Peter Strickland).
I love that this is a story about a lesbian BDSM relationship. I love how beautifully and sensually it’s shot, how lovely of a world it gives its characters to live in, and how much attention is paid to the sound design. I love that aesthetically it manages to be both dark and moody and opulent and dazzling, as well as pastoral and pleasant from time to time, without going too far in any direction.
I love that there is a “Perfume” credit in the opening titles, meaning that the production’s commitment to sensuality was so great that they staffed a specific role to invest entirely in set dressing that would never be sensed or experienced directly by the audience.
I love that for 85% of the movie the story does nothing but stay with its two main characters, watching them mostly, spying on them occasionally, and frequently sitting in sympathetic discomfort while the difficulties within the scene unfold. I love that this feels neither oppressive nor gossipy; I love that their world feels like their own.
And yes, I love that this film hits hard, and is uncomfortable.
For everything I love about The Duke of Burgundy, I couldn’t say it’s one of my favorite films to put on when I’m feeling as rosy and pleasant as some of the moments depicted. It’s not one from which I seek the warm bath/cold champagne feeling that I hoped to find the first time I watched. It’s not a romance. As essentially imbued with romance as every one of its scenes certainly is, The Duke of Burgundy is a drama.
In a way it’s my only real complaint about the film, and it’s one that isn’t even a critique, or a gripe. I think I really just wanted to see these women in love, and what I got, while certainly not more, was almost, almost as good as that.
It’s hard to watch what these women go through, the erudite and elegant Cynthia (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) and the desperate and malcontented Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). Cynthia, the Domme, is at once all powerful epitome of the refined, mature European lady, and also completely powerless, trapped, and inarticulate, and Evelyn, the humble, long suffering slavegirl who always puts herself first. They struggle, they strain, and they fracture. They say everything they think they need to to each other without ever being able to say what they’re most feeling and thinking. They orchestrate and execute, without being able to express themselves, or connect.
On the surface, and on a first viewing, it seems like this is a film about what many in the BDSM community would look down on as simple “topping from the bottom”, and there certainly is a lot of that. Most practitioners would recognize that, and they would say it’s a frustration of values and that it revolves around the characters’ inability to communicate. And they wouldn’t be wrong that that aspect is a major theme of the movie. But this story, and this film, is about more.
What The Duke of Burgundy shows, more than it shows foot worship and erotic domestic servitude, more than it shows how rough things can get when things are not fluid and open between two partners, more than it shows paradoxes and conflicts between desire and the manifest, it shows the extent to which someone who loves someone else will bend over backwards for that person’s immaturity, petulance, and selfishness, and that is a more human paradox than I’ve ever seen depicted in a kink film.
This film succeeds so extraordinarily purely out of how intensely it is determined to differentiate itself from the way any other production it would have handled the things it depicts. In another world this movie is a cheap, low rent production with a cishet couple that makes the whole thing “battle of the sexes”, where the Domme isn’t even really kinky and is beset by the excessive perversions of a wantonly fetishistic partner, but no. Like the metaphor of the soundalike butterfly species that underlies this film, The Duke of Burgundy is distinct. It takes the road not traveled, and goes a great deal further.
There’s a real interplay thematically between what you see and what you get, what you want and what you’re stuck with. It lets its characters live in a fantasy world of deep authenticity, and makes you feel sorry for them when you realize that they’re lost there. Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship is often all witchcraft and no magic, and it shows how hard people can work to make everything “perfect” and still be unable to get what they want. It’s paradoxes and double entendres, it’s reality versus truth, it’s meaning versus language, and so much more.
In the highlights, in many ways it’s crafted like a great kink experience, combining so many special and carefully considered elements, and in all of the them the regard for what it has set out to depict is abundant, and overflowing.
Within the internal world of the film kink is not just normal, and its existence within that world is not merely accepted or indulged. For me the most gratifying and most deliciously fantastical element is the way kink is hypernormalized, forming the foundation of the reality in which they live, manifesting in ways far beyond the boundaries of a “scene” and beyond the walls of their estate. It shows itself with complexity and nuance in who these characters are, and it’s connected with the world they inhabit.
There’s so much about it that feels authentic and inspiring, and that enables it to be deeply touching and special. It gives itself the room and the authority to tell a sensitive, heartbreaking story so carefully and deliberately that it bears watching many times to sift through the layers and nuances.
For films in this genre The Duke of Burgundy stands alone, as a depiction, as a description, and as an incredible work of art.