The Duke of Burgundy (IMDB) is a 2014 drama film written and directed by Peter Strickland, and starring Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn and Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia. Shot in the UK and Hungary.
One of the oldest cliches in BDSM is “the submissive has all the power”. This is not always true, nor is it necessarily a good thing, as the life of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch demonstrated. Submissives and masochists can be abusive, as shown by The Duke of Burgundy.
Somewhere in Europe, sometime in the mid-20th century, two women play out elaborate sadomasochistic scenarios. Evelyn, playing the meek maid, comes to the house of Cynthia, playing the haughty mistress. Evelyn’s duties of cleaning and laundry are, inevitably, unsatisfactory, which results in punishment. Cynthia drags Evelyn to the bathroom, closes the door on the camera, and urinates on her.
Obviously, the MPAA would not give a film could give a film with an explicit golden showers scene an R-rating or even an NC-17 rating. (IMDB says it doesn’t have a rating in the USA.)
A few days later, they do it all over again. It’s a bit reminiscent of Secretary or the Munby-Cullwick relationship, a private world between two people in which mundane activities are elevated to erotic rituals.
Evelyn loves their scenes, but Cynthia is slowly stockpiling resentment. She follows Evelyn’s minutely detailed scripts, wears the uncomfortable lingerie and clothes Evelyn purchased, drinks the pitchers of water so she can urinate on Evelyn on cue, stands on the tape marks on her bedroom carpet so Evelyn can spy on her through the keyhole. “Topping from the bottom” is an expression that is not always properly applied, but this is definitely a case.
Even when they’re cuddling face to face in bed, Evelyn insists on the same fantasy script, and Cynthia reluctantly obliges her.
Evelyn: Gasps. “Keep talking. Say something else.”
Cynthia: Thinks a moment. “You haven’t washed my panties recently. Nor have you polished my boots. If you want to be a good maid you have to do these things a lot more. Otherwise you’ll be punished.”
Evelyn: “Keep talking.”
Cynthia: Running out of material. “Um, I don’t know what to say.”
Evelyn: “Just go back to the beginning then.”
Cynthia: “I’m not happy. I’m not happy with you at all.”
Evelyn: getting close. “Improvise!”
Cynthia: “When you work for me it’s for life. You have to do whatever I want, whenever I want. Because if you don’t, I just might tie you up and use you as my chair for the afternoon. I can read about cave crickets whilst you are helpless underneath me and I put my weight upon your face. And you just have to lie there and wait until I’m finished reading my book and–”
Evelyn orgasms. She relaxes, blissed out. Cynthia kisses her forehead.
Evelyn smiles and touches her face. Then says, “Try to have more conviction in your voice next time.”
Cynthia: “More conviction. Okay.”
Even though they’re in bed together and touching, it’s more like a phone sex session.
Doms and tops, professional and otherwise, don’t like being treated as wind-up toys. Evelyn both micro-manages Cynthia’s dominance, and leaves her without guidelines. Worse, she’s giving nothing back. When Cynthia throws her back out, or otherwise wants a little TLC, Evelyn is reluctant and bitchy, criticizing Cynthia for wearing comfy pyjamas instead of vintage lingerie.
At the low point of the relationship, they just throw passive-aggressive barbs at each other. Jealousy about other women rears its ugly head
This separation reaches an extreme when Evelyn sets her heart on being locked up for the night. She drags a heavy black trunk into their bedroom and has Cynthia tie her up and put her in it. Instead of sleeping with her lover, Cynthia has a black box in her bedroom.
Perhaps the worst moment is when Cynthia blatantly ignores Evelyn’s safeword.
Cynthia: “Pinastri. Pinastre, pinastri. Oh, if we could all just say ‘pinastri’ to end our torments.”
This does not, however, end the relationship.
Eventually, they’re both just going through the motions. Cynthia breaks down.
Cynthia: “Sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.”
Evelyn: Hugs her. “If this is what it does to you, I can change. All this is just a luxury. The important thing is you.”
Cynthia: “No, but maybe you’ll end up resenting me. We can’t win.”
Evelyn: “How can I resent you? I love you. I have a different way of showing it, but I love you. You do believe me, don’t you? What do you want me to do, to prove it? Just tell me. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Please believe that I love you.”
They take the trunk out of the bedroom, and burn Evelyn’s instructions. However, the ending is ambiguous, suggesting that Evelyn and Cynthia have returned to their old patterns.
The Duke of Burgundy is a psychologically realistic portrayal of a dom-sub relationship. However, the mise-en-scène is deliberately unrealistic, with no clear indicator of time or place, in a world solely inhabited by women. The film shifts into dreams and fantasies, and even the normal scenes have elements of unreality. For instance, when Evelyn and Cynthia attend lectures on entomology, some of the people in the audience are actually mannequins. I kept expecting the camera to pan over and reveal a smartphone or some other modern artifact.
Coming at this from a kinky person’s perspective, this seems unnecessary. It’s not like Angels and Insects (1995), in which the insects serve as metaphors for the sociological observations. Why not give this subject matter a more naturalist treatment?
Despite the ending, and the air of unreality that permeates the film, The Duke of Burgundy takes the relationship between these two women seriously and doesn’t want it to fail. The problems develop not because Evelyn and Cynthia are kinksters but because they are human and flawed.