Review: ‘The Duke Of Burgundy’ The Best Hardcore BDSM Lesbian Lepidopterist Film Of All Time

01.23.15 4 years ago 19 Comments
"Would you mind picking up some red-blood cells for me at the store?"

IFC Films

"Would you mind picking up some red blood cells for me at the store?"

Vince’s Note: I originally saw Duke Of Burgundy at TIFF and was totally unprepared for it. I didn’t really know what to make of it, this two-hour lesbian BDSM fantasy full of face sitting and golden showers set in a strange world of moth scientists (seriously). The director spoke afterwards and was very smart and engaging, full of strange influences I’d barely even heard of. It made me want to do some homework and give it a re-watch. I hadn’t quite managed that when I heard it was getting a simultaneous VOD and limited release from IFC this Friday, so I did the next best thing: I sent Heather, who, after all, we first discovered when she appeared in a video reacting to the sex scenes in Blue Is The Warmest Color. I guess that makes her our go-to for lesbian stuff. Enjoy.

You have to hand it to a movie that includes a 20-minute hypnotic fantasy sequence inside the black hole of a woman’s vagina. What you hand it, I don’t know – either a round of applause, or a pile of shit – would equally do. The Duke of Burgundy, directed by Peter Strickland of Berberian Sound Studio, is a tender study of love, examined through the lens of lesbian BDSM. It is also stylized to the point of hilarious absurdity: a movie that simultaneously makes you want to jump for joy, then hide under your seat to prepare for the oncoming bomb (vagina). Imagine if the editors of the New York Review of Books met up in a 70s Times Square porn theater to write a heartfelt three-act play about golden showers. For better or for worse, that’s The Duke of Burgundy.

At its most basic level, the film is a simple love story, set in some sort of post-Victorian Jungian homo-scape (house). Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudson) is a wealthy lepidopterist who’s hired Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), a fellow lepidopterist, to be Cynthia’s housemaid and sex toy. For the first part of the story, the two appear to embody classic BDSM roles: Cynthia, the sadistic, dominant matron, Evelyn, her masochistic servant. When Evelyn fails to clean Cynthia’s “panties” properly (her disgusting word, not mine), Cynthia punishes Evelyn by peeing in her mouth. Seems fair! For the first half of the movie, Cynthia barks commands while Evelyn zooms around like a glorified hand-vacuum, hungry for crumbs off the floor and out Cynthia’s vagina. “So erotic,” my creepy neighbor whispered, which, in addition to being the most obvious comment of 2015, was also, categorically, untrue.

The story picks up considerably when Cynthia denies Evelyn’s request for a human toilet (no ironic quotes there). While Evelyn plays a masochist in the bedroom, it’s contextual: she’s a sadist in the real relationship. Cynthia may bark at Evelyn, but Evelyn has (literally) scripted those commands in advance. As the story progresses, Cynthia becomes more resistant to Evelyn’s whims, and longs for a more traditional relationship. Cynthia struggles to humiliate Evelyn while she masturbates. Cynthia wants to walk around the house in pajamas. For whatever reason, locking Evelyn in a small wooden box for days on end makes Cynthia “upset.” Oh Cynthia, you old prude.

Strickland’s message is clearly articulated, and mature: relationships aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface. Power is an endless series of negotiations between two people, each with varying degrees in consent. Just because Cynthia has power in the bedroom doesn’t mean she has it in any other rooms of the house. Their erotic games are exactly that: a chance for both women to try on power roles they don’t traditionally occupy. Think of the stereotypical dominatrix scenario: a man, typically upper-class, hires a woman, traditionally working-class, to order him around. At the end of the session, the two go back to their “daily” roles, she, a server, he, an account executive at one of the city’s top douchebag firms. It’s fun to pretend you’re slime when you don’t have to deal with its real life consequences (dry skin).

None of this is to disparage BDSM, or Strickland’s film: The Duke of Burgundy is one of the few movies out there that doesn’t sensationalize the practice (not like you need to sensationalize ‘human toilet’).  For comparison, think of William Friedkin’s Cruising or James Franco’s Interior. Leather Bar. If you haven’t seen Leather Bar (because you’re a nice, well-rounded person with a good set of hobbies), look away: Franco spends most of the film watching gay men whip each other, then thank Franco for being “so understanding.” His movie is emblematic of so many movies about this subculture: half-baked stories told by self-congratulatory storytellers who think they should win awards for their diverse array of rainbow loincloths and concrete butt plugs.

In Burgundy, however, Strickland uses BDSM as a surface prop to tell a traditional love story. What happens, the director asks us, when two people love each other but have vastly competing needs? What do you do when you can’t be the person your partner wants you to be? At the beginning stages of every relationship, every partner plays a role: the caretaker. The comedian. The sado-masochistic lesbian lepidopterist. Over time, however, roles change and people begin to slip into their natural selves. Underneath our Urban Outfitters exteriors, we’re all weeping balls of need. So when Cynthia wants to stop playing the part of sadist, Evelyn struggles to make sense of the new person sitting atop her face. The two try to compromise. It works, it doesn’t work, it works, it doesn’t work, it hurts.

What Burgundy has in emotional sophistication, however, it lacks in stylistic moderation. Strickland says that his film was inspired by 1970s European horror erotica, in particular, the work of Jess Franco. In Burgundy, excess is everywhere: from the Freudian chairs in their living room, to the Beauty and the Beast castle they call home, to the four-inch heels Evelyn begs Cynthia to wear (does anyone care about arch support anymore?!). Visually, it’s striking, beautiful, sometimes awkward: a 1970s porn set in a Grimm’s fairy tale, featuring CGI bugs and drawn-out zipper sequences.

Emotional lipstick sequence (One of about thirty)

IFC Films

Emotional lipstick sequence (One of about thirty)

Strickland sometimes spends so much time in this surrealistic universe that he forgets to visit planet Earth. Burgundy, to its credit, features a cast of all women – 99% of whom are lepidopterists. We spend a lot of time (a lot of time) in a lecture hall, hearing Aryan women drone on about bugs while quietly coveting each other’s leather boots. The concept, while hackneyed, isn’t terrible – its overuse is. I understand that part of the pleasure in BDSM is in the denial – the sexual repression underneath the surface. But these scenes deny and deny and deny, without ever offering release.

There are other issues. Grating, flamboyant bugs soar through the air like the grating, flamboyant metaphors they are. At one point, Evelyn looks into the black hole of Cynthia’s vagina, then moves into some sort of hardcore, hypnotic, BDSM extend-a-fantasy. Granted, it’s hard to get a “black hole vagina sequence” right, but the scene goes on for so long we lose all sense of story. As the music thunders and Cynthia starts to make love to Evelyn’s corpse, I couldn’t help but think: “I really need to take down the Christmas tree” and, “I wonder if I still have that pizza in the fridge.” In Burgundy, excess doesn’t generate drama, it breeds boredom, recreational narcolepsy.

By the end of the film, I had no attachment to the characters – and this is not the fault of the actresses. Knudson, who plays Cynthia, is one of the best actresses in Denmark, and it shows (Pulled from the Buzzfeed article, “The Best Lesbian BDSM Actresses in Denmark: A Definitive Ranking, LOL, Trending, Popular”). D’Anna, who plays Evelyn, offers comparatively very little. But the problem has less to do with performance and more to do with structure: the two women act as props for Strickland’s tightly choreographed play of ideas. Cynthia isn’t a human being who eats ketchup packets and cries at rom-coms: she’s a reluctant masochist who plays a sadist in the bedroom. Evelyn doesn’t shop at Nordstrom Rack or do Cross-fit: she’s an unconscious sadist who plays a masochist in the backyard. Burgundy is so heavy with style, so suffused with symbol, that even though we know what Cynthia and Evelyn stand for – we have no idea who they are.

Still, none of this is to take away from what is, inarguably, “The Best Hardcore BDSM Lesbian Lepidopterist Film Of All Time.” For all of Strickland’s indulgences, Burgundy is ultimately a very plain love story, made up of all the ambiguity and ambivalence and compromise that characterize real, adult, love. The story runs back and forth through time and leaves us with no clear answers. Will Cynthia and Evelyn stay together? I don’t know, and I’m not totally sure I care. There are so many thoughts in Burgundy, but humanity only comes out in glimpses. It’s worth it to stay awake.

Grade: B

Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at dockrayheather@gmail.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org.

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