BLG – Minimalistic Theme Focused on Readability

EN

“I like the way it hurts”: Impressions on “The Duke of Burgundy”

Dalila Honorato

At first glance The Duke of Burgundy (2014) seems to be an historical drama focusing on the differences in social status and on the exploitation resulting from the abyss between the servant and the served but, as the story evolves, it starts revealing its shape as a courtly love[1]. That is until the gaze direction is turned and another perspective comes forth: what happens while one is dreaming and the other is contributing to the perfec­tion of the partner’s daily fantasy? Who dictates the reality of experience and how is it possi­ble to know that both parts are in the same page? The Duke of Burgundy explores the scene and what happens behind the scene, converting the experience of seeing into an omnipresent act of voyeurism. For this reason, the film is a constant game, balancing concepts and mean­ings behind its characters’ words and mind-set, often resulting in a form of distorted semiot­ics.

Heterosexuality in Homosexuality. Being more than a LGBT film with a scent of BDSM, The Duke of Burgundy appeals to a wider audience since, despite the oddness of its details —es­pecially those involving insects— the plot is based on a universal theme, describing love as expressed by two individuals, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’ Anna). Both characters have an undeniable feminine identity but the fact that they are two women is of minor significance since this is a story in an all-women environment, more accurately, a world where gender differences do not exist or, at least, they are not perceived. To recognize the classification of the film as a lesbian love story is like believing in the existence of a geo­graphic space exclusively inhabited by a sisterhood of specialists in butterflies. There is some­thing much more straightforward being described and the gender of each character is not part of it, because this could easily be the story of an heterosexual couple; regardless, the sexual content revealed by the camera lens would become obviously polarized and therefore compromised. Gender equality, in its limit, as full identification, takes a lot of pressure from the script and leaves space to focus on the fragile balance of a relationship, instead of the details concerning physical differences between the parts involved. It is no wonder that the choice of the two leading actresses who have such opposite body types, but seem to be per­fectly suited to their characters as initially conceived (the strongest and the weakest), does not seem coincidental, but this, again, has nothing to do with gender or identity. But if the focus of the story is not the disclosure of Sapphic desire —one can even wonder what it would be like in an all-male narrative (something the director has already suggested as his next film plot[2])—, then what is undoubtedly intriguing is to approach the issue of sexuality and objec­tification through a woman’s eyes, in addition to the men behind the camera: the director and writer Peter Strickland[3], the producer Andy Starke, as well as Nic Knowland and Mátyás Fe­kete, who were responsible for the cinematography and editing.

Sacrifice in Sadism. It is too simplistic to classify The Duke of Burgundy as a story of D/s, domination and submission. With its bits of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism and its switches, it remains safely away from the gorean lifestyle by embracing a more refined boudoir aesthetics. There is something of a fairytale surrounding the film, maybe because of its proximity to nature. There are no cars and everybody seems to be riding a bicycle, there are no computers, and Cynthia, a lecturer in lepidopterology, insists on reading what seem to be antiquarian books and writing on a manual typewriter, while the carpenter, performed by Fatma Mohamed, finds her equipment limited to a pencil, a measure tape and a notebook. Maybe it is because of the clothes, credited as “dress and lingerie”[4] by Andrea Flesch, and that first scene in the woods where Evelyn is wearing a black cape. But for the vague association with Red Riding Hood, she is not an innocent young woman endangered by nature. Neither is the carpenter who also makes her appearance wearing a black cape. None of them is wearing a cape with a hood. It is Cynthia’s head instead to be covered by a hood, the moment she leaves Evelyn and the carpenter discussing details about the “human toilet”, a piece of furni­ture with less demand[5]. This marks the moment when she will have to face the wolf, thus confronting her own fears.

Cynthia, who seems to be enjoying the conversation concerning the new bed, while sip­ping her cup of tea, will leave the house clearly upset about the turn her relationship is about to take, with the introduction of the new sex toys and the extreme fascination that her lover shows for those acquisitions. She seems to be worried about her own capacity to cope with Evelyn’s turn-on by a more transgressive behavior, which will start affecting the routine of the couple. Cynthia might be ready to stay punctually apart from her partner during sleep but the introduction of this new act of submission was not yet negotiated by the couple. There is no clear expression of revulsion on her behalf, but instead a clear sadness on the conse­quences that might be involved with the act of using a human toilet, the eradication of the emotional connection with her partner.

Domination is not natural to Cynthia, in the same way that submission is an essential quality in Evelyn’s personality. Cynthia is a Domme because she submits to Evelyn’s erotic fantasy, subjugating her body towards the satisfaction of her lover, and thus guaranteeing the endurance of their relationship. The film becomes more interesting as it explores this dimen­sion of love, the sacrifice of one’s own self and the offering of what one knows towards the abyss of the unknown. How far can Cynthia go? She surely seems quite convincing in the be­ginning of the film, as a dream come true, embodying a classic female authority-figure, a dou­ble mistress/ teacher towards her maid/ student. She seems to accomplish the demands of her role, almost fooling us in her interpretation seen through Evelyn’s eyes. Besides servitude, this fantasy role playing includes verbal humiliation, by diminishing one’s abilities (“You can start by cleaning the study. And don't take all day this time.”), emotional boundary, while controlling the other’s actions (“‒May I go to the toilet? ‒No.”), mind-games, when distorting one’s sense of reality (“‒But there is nothing left to do. ‒Oh, there’s plenty left to do.”), de­grading names (“bad” and “lazy”), fetish (boots’ worship), forniphilia (using the other as fur­niture), trampling (foot over mouth), bondage, confinement, urophilia (golden shower or water games, “Open your mouth” followed by a sound of a spring and coughing) and a safe­word (“Pinastri”, otherwise a species of moth). But all pity for Evelyn starts to vanish as soon as we see reality through Cynthia’s eyes who is not sure about her performance and does not understand her lover’s tastes. She simply executes her role.

Trust in Surrender. It is difficult not to feel sympathy for Cynthia, trying to fill her bladder with water so that she will not disappoint her partner when the time for “punishment” comes, counting her steps so that all scenes run accordingly to Evelyn’s instructions, trying her best to dress up according to her partner’s taste (“I need an instruction manual to get into half of the things you buy me.”), worried about Evelyn’s safety inside the trunk  (“Can you breathe in there?”), frustrated for not being up to the task (”I can do this. Okay, um... I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.”), while at the same time being confronted with the reality of physical pain and the true severity of aging. She plays along Evelyn’s games, although that is something which seems to make her uncomfortable, because she is asked to perform a role that does not reflect her feelings, nevertheless Cynthia enjoys the moments she spends in the company of her lover. In the scene where Evelyn is reading her manuscript we see a completely different character, the real Cynthia, the one without the wig, who is tender with her partner, caressing her hair and praising her work. And Cynthia is a real human being. She snores and she feels comfortable in her pajamas.

Cynthia seems to have some doubts concerning the trunk’s presence in the house and objects to acquiring the “human toilet” since that is something she is not ready to explore yet. Besides one can perceive her difficulties to steadily perform the scenes involving golden showers. The trunk somehow resembles a coffin and hints concerning death are given through Cynthia’s line (“Can you breath in there?”) which are more clearly suggested through the fantasy scene where Cynthia first finds a skeleton inside it until, after a scene chasing Evelyn, she finally finds her partner inside a coffin only to be pulled inside, slightly pushing towards an association with the idea of the “six feet under club”. Cynthia does not seem to be satisfied with not having Evelyn sleeping by her side. Gradually she will lose her enthusiasm for the role. She “breaks” but not because she feels guilty for acting cruelly towards Evelyn but because she is being “broken” by her. She is fighting back Evelyn’s attempts to mold her and as an attempt to somehow recover both herself and her partner.

Expressing eroticism means different things to Cynthia and Evelyn, where Cynthia has to say something she does not feel in order to please her partner. Not being a natural Domme, she will not initiate a scene, she will not be convincing enough when she is demanded to im­provise and for all that, despite her effort, at the first sign of weakness, she will be the target of Evelyn’s resentment. Of course there are moments when Cynthia uses her power to show Evelyn her opinion, in a very discreet way as in the scene after the Grizzled Skipper episode, when Cynthia is sitting on Evelyn’s face. Evelyn has behaved like an immature girl due to her lack of self-confidence and she is worried about others’ perceiving her as being stupid, some­thing that Cynthia denies in a very nurturing way but refuses to stop the punishment. As in two parallel worlds, reality-hyperreality, she is dominating, de facto, within an orchestrated domination scene interrupted by moments out of the role.

Where is Evelyn in the middle of all this? Her character demonstrates a wider spectrum of personalities when compared to Cynthia’s. During the first scenes one inevitably feels sorry for her. A young woman alone in the woods, who works in the house of a disrespectful mis­tress (Cynthia) who seems to be exploiting her (“You finish when I say.”) and driving her out­side of her comfort zone (“You won’t be using the machine.”) whenever she has the chance to do so. But Evelyn’s personality is much more complex than the simple role of a servant. She is a masochist and her pleasure comes to the surface, as do the bubbles of soap or the dripping after the soap is gone, while washing Cynthia’s panties and as the voice pitch of this scene’s soundtrack flawlessly illustrates. Her hedonistic side is activated by humiliation and what can be interrelated at first with power exchange (“Cynthia. This is all I ever dreamed about, to be owned by you. To be used by you. I can’t tell you how happy I am.”).

Empowerment in Humiliation. Part of this humiliation ritual, besides verbalization, is ob­serving Cynthia undressing through the keyhole. The door is torture and foreplay, creating anticipation, orchestrated by Evelyn, with Cynthia walking back and forth carefully, following the marks left on the carpet for an optimized voyeuristic perspective. But Evelyn becomes more impatient as she gets used to the scene or when the timing is not followed according to her instructions, so when she wants to rush things up a little, instead of looking through the keyhole, she knocks on the door. Another part of the humiliation ritual is punishing through confinement inside the trunk which seems to have some effect in Evelyn’s headspace, as dur­ing the fantasy scene which can be understood as Evelyn’s altered state of mind.

But Evelyn’s complexity is higher than her dedication to submission. She is actually the one in control and demanding from Cynthia the adaptation to her vision of a Domme charac­ter, the ideal object of her desire[6]. She uses little notes with precise instructions to her partner concerning the concretization of her fantasies. Other times she asks (“Cynthia. Can you sit on me? Please?”), because she knows exactly what she wants (“Tell me about the other things.”). For example in the masturbation scene, Evelyn is not totally satisfied with Cynthia’s perfor­mance and she advices more conviction in the voice because according to her “The colder the better”.

When she is not promptly satisfied she gets bored and when frustrated she undoubtedly plays out of her role of submissive by humiliating Cynthia. The switch between domination and submission becomes clearer when Cynthia gets sick. Her back hurts, injured while bring­ing the trunk into the bedroom, and she is not in the mood to play. She feels neglected by Evelyn who is not inspired to rub her back (“Even the tramps are less shabby.”) and, later on, betrayed when her partner tries to satisfy her fantasies somewhere else, by polishing another lecturer’s boots. It is clear that she is sexually less committed to her partner during another scene where she is flirting with the carpenter. And it is also interesting to emphasize how the act of touching seems to have a different meaning to the two characters: according to Cynthia it is an expression of understanding but to Evelyn touching is inspired by erotic expectations.

In The Duke of Burgundy physical pain is a consequence of a random action and not some­thing directly inflicted by the characters, through any of the BDSM activity portrayed. “Play”[7], in its physical activity, is limited to light bondage. The spectator is not confronted with spank­ing, caning or flogging. All pain is related to the trunk: Evelyn’s comes from the desire to re­main a longer time tied up inside it and Cynthia’s from her back being injured while carrying it inside the bedroom.

Mental activity is the source of pain, in some cases resulting in pleasure. But it requires a method to inflict this kind of pain. Evelyn likes to be humiliated in a certain way which Cyn­thia initially accepts to perform but there is nothing really violent about her act. In and out her role as ice queen, she worries about her partner’s well-being and has a clear preference for a comfortable environment once she is by herself. Where is all this going and when is it enough? Maybe it is all going too fast for Cynthia’s pace. She possibly needs more aftercare. One sees how responsive she is to Evelyn’s caresses and how worried she is about aging and losing the ability to recover fast from pain. She deeply wishes a companion on equal terms, someone to help her healing, but will then Evelyn substitute her for another, more willing performer of the dominating role?

Resentment in Initiative. As a matter of fact Evelyn is not ready to become a submissive. When Cynthia reacts to her boots’ indiscretion by dominating the scene —note that she is not wearing a wig, as if this was a sign of her mental control on the interaction between the cou­ple—, Evelyn does not know how to react. For that reason the cake scene becomes extraordi­nary, when Cynthia is, for the first time in the film, a Domme of her own. She eats Evelyn’s birthday cake by herself, she blows the candle, keeps Evelyn at a distance by humiliating her (“Your breath is like a hyena.”) and puts her foot on her partner’s mouth. She has not become a sadist, she is simply giving Evelyn a taste of her own medicine, and as a good lecturer she knows well how to give a lecture (“Oh, if we could all just say ‘Pinastri’ to end our torments.”). Evelyn will end up crying because this is not what she had in mind for her birthday and more important she is not the one controlling the game. Evelyn was too eager to play. She went too far, too fast, too soon and her life with her partner will have to change. Cynthia keeps playing along Evelyn’s games but as if her mind is detached from the scene and the body is simply executing one role by reflex and stripped of any ritualistic value. It seems their relationship is condemned to end or the fantasy will end up killing them. When are the boundaries so stressed that there is no other choice but to shout out “Pinastri”?

The last scene with the brown panties is a master confrontation of power, where Evelyn will have to choose between her fantasies and her love for Cynthia. The role playing game is destroying Cynthia and she has doubts as to whether their relationship can survive after this point. The words once said as a threat, are now a revelation of Cynthia’s despair: “No, you can’t wash it now. And it is a problem”. Evelyn has to gain Cynthia’s trust once again. It is her time to prove her love for Cynthia because she has been playing for so long out of her role and their interaction has been so mechanically inserted within a routine that she has lost the belief in Evelyn’s feelings for her. Whatever is standing between the contact of the two, the trunk and the conditioning, has to be removed because Cynthia needs to feel that she is loved for what she is and not only for what she can provide.

Evelyn is meticulous in her research and her fantasies. She is so passionate following her own desires that she pushes her partner to a breaking point and despite the tight control which can diminish a more spontaneous behavior. She is training Cynthia too hastily, not giv­ing her enough time to understand and consensually accept the changes being introduced. As a result, Cynthia is unable to cope, feels depressed and is unable to absorb the new patterns of behavior. In order to bring Cynthia back in the game, Evelyn will have to comfort and reas­sure her that she is more valuable than any of her fantasies (“All this is just a luxury. The important thing is you.”), providing her with enough care and time to overcome panic. Once Cynthia has recovered, she might be receptive again to Evelyn’s training.

Freedom in Bondage. Evelyn might play the little one but she is a giant crushing any of her partner’s spontaneous movement. She complains about Cynthia’s lack of initiative while at the same time she cries under her foot because she wants to be tortured in a very specific manner. She worships Cynthia partly because of her natural qualities, as a leading profes­sional in her workfield, and partly because Cynthia has given her the gift of submission, by accepting to perform the role of the Domme in their relationship. This power exchange re­quires an adequate aftercare. So when Evelyn fails to take the initiative to rub her back, while she is in pain, there is resentment. As a vicious cycle, Evelyn’s lack of inspiration is connected to Cynthia’s inability to correspond to the image she has idealized and her association be­tween touching and eroticism makes a powerless Cynthia unattractive. As shown in the scene after their love making, where Cynthia is lying on top of Evelyn who’s rubbing her legs: “Did I say you could stop?”, says Cynthia in a tone that includes both a demand and a childlike complain, to which Evelyn replies with a confession: “As long as I am yours I remain alive”.

Does this mean that Cynthia is being sexually objectified by Evelyn? With her own con­sent, yes. She is wearing the clothes that Evelyn bought her, which also hints on who has the higher financial substance of the two, although this is something not openly explored. The universe of The Duke of Burgundy is quite homogenous. There seem to be no differences based on gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status, except for the mannequins attending the lec­tures and a certain taste for kink demonstrated by a few characters. One might wonder, when everything is so homogeneous, if enforcing roles can be a way of breaking monotony and ob­taining some sense of “exotic”, since variety between the two characters can’t be obtained through a polyamorous behavior, as a result of Cynthia’s limits on the subject of exclusivity.

More than an LGBT film with a scent of BDSM, The Duke of Burgundy is a story about dedication and commitment. Kink just makes the relation reality/ fantasy within the couple’s dynamics more clear. The film includes a wider spectrum of possibilities connecting Domme and sub, in order to better emphasize the fragile balance between power and control among the parts involved in any relationship. But then why butterflies? Maybe the reference is an archetype and we are all insects being disposed by a divine sadistic entomologist director, who we worship despite the pain inflicted. Maybe it is a reference to human beings and their capacity to adapt and evolve. Maybe behind metamorphoses and existentialism this is truly an identification of science and eros: to be studied through a microscope in detail, to be ex­posed and shown off behind a showcase, to be pinned down. Is there a better description of falling in love?

 

Dalila Honorato, PhD, is Assistant Professor in Aesthetics and Image Semiology at the Department of Audio and Visual Arts, Ionian University.

 



[1] The title is a line from the lyrics of “Love The Way You Lie” a song by Eminem ft. Rihanna. About the Duke of Burgundy, see also: Interview by S. Rupe ,“Beyond Exploitation: Peter Strickland’s THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY”, Fandor, 26/01/2015, https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/duke-of-burgundy-and-the-mechanics-of-sex (accessed: 27/01/2016); “Exploring Sex, Power, and Perfume with ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ Director Peter Strickland”, Blackbook, 23/01/2015, http://bbook.com/film/peter-strickland-the-duke-burgundy/ (accessed: 27/01/2016); J. Teodoro, “Of Human Bondage: Peter Strickland on The Duke of Burgundy”, Cinema Scope (CS61), http://cinema-scope.com/features/human-bondage-peter-strickland-duke-burgundy/ (accessed: 27/01/2016); Interview by R. Juzwiak, “Topping, Bottoming, and Between: The Duke of Burgundy's Peter Stricklan”, Defamer, 21/01/2015, http://defamer.gawker.com/topping-bottoming-and-between-the-duke-of-burgundys-1680762730 (accessed: 27/01/2016); N. Murray, “S&M Saves: Inside the Kinkiest Arthouse Film of the Year”, Rolling Stone, 21/01/2015, http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/duke-of-burgundy-kinkiest-arthouse-film-of-the-year-20150121 (accessed: 27/01/2016).

[2] Interview by R. Lattanzio, “‘Duke of Burgundy’ Director Peter Strickland Wants You to Stop Comparing Him to David Lynch”, Indiewire, 19/01/2015, http://blogs.indiewire.com/thompsononhollywood/duke-of-burgundy-director-peter-strickland-wants-you-to-stop-comparing-him-to-david-lynch-20150114 (accessed: 27/01/2016).

[3] Acclaimed for his feature Berberian Sound Studio (2012).

[4] The reference appears in the opening credits, while Evelyn is riding her bicycle, right before the lyrics’ line “Oh, how people change” on “Forest Intro” by the Cat’s Eyes in The Duke of Burgundy soundtrack. Andrea Flesch is an Hungarian costume designer; see also: http://www.andreaflesch.com/.

[5] Since the new bed, with a compartment underneath to accommodate one person, takes longer time than expected to be delivered and Evelyn’s wish was to have it as a birthday present, the carpenter proposes an alternative “suitable compromise” that can be available sooner. More details are not expressively given in the scene but this furniture introduces the idea of defecation in addition to the sound reference given in a previous scene of Cynthia urinating on Evelyn.

[6] The choice of actress Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia being dominated by her submissive becomes even more interesting due to her well-known interpretation in world renowned Danish TV series Borgen (2010-13) where she performed the character of Prime-Minister Birgitte Nyborg.

[7] “Kinky” activities.