An imperious, severely dressed lady instructs a young female servant to wash a pile of underwear, by hand. Unfortunately, the servant overlooks one pair, and in the lady’s judgement fails to clean the others “properly”. The lady hauls her into the bathroom for “a little punishment”, closing the door firmly once the two of them are inside. “Lie down,” the lady says coolly. “Open your mouth.” From behind the door, a gush of liquid is heard, followed by the servant girl’s hapless sputtering and gasping.
That bit of apparent cruelty occurs near the beginning of writer-director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014), an intelligent and well-crafted film about a BDSM relationship involving two intriguing female characters. It’s a long way from being Hawt Lesbian Porn, and indeed the sex and kink between young Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and the imposing Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) are kept offscreen to an extent that comes across as prudish and contrived. In most other ways, however, The Duke of Burgundy is pretty darn good, if a little pretentious and ponderously artistic in places. The writing and acting are excellent, and the women have been beautifully filmed going about their fictional lives in a strange, surreal milieu that looks in many ways like it might be some quiet European village in the early 20th century. However, the population in Evelyn and Cynthia’s world is entirely female, and the popular pastimes seem to be studying insects and, of course, indulging in the pleasures and torments of BDSM.
The best thing about The Duke of Burgundy is how cleverly Strickland first presents Evelyn as Cynthia’s obedient, downtrodden slave girl and then spends the rest of the movie using snippets of interaction between the women to show that their relationship is actually very different. The balance of this post is more like an extended rumination on that relationship than a conventional film review, and there are plenty of spoilers, so I suggest that you watch the movie – if it sounds interesting to you, and if you haven’t seen it already – before reading further.
Not long after Evelyn receives her “little punishment” behind the closed door of the bathroom, we see Cynthia preparing for another session. She dresses carefully, drinks plenty of water, and consults a handwritten index card that Evelyn has provided:
When I ring the door bell, please keep me waiting. A minimum of thirty seconds and a maximum of five minutes. Somewhere in the middle would be perfect. Perhaps around two minutes, thirty. But don’t do that every time, otherwise it becomes predictable. Please wear the dark red wig…”
The long-suffering Cynthia could be a case study in the distinction between dominance and service topping, as she pours physical and mental energy into playing the sadistic oppressor in endless little dramas of Evelyn’s devising. Evelyn’s appetite for the ostensibly subordinate role is seemingly insatiable, but so is her appetite for control over the parameters of each scenario and indeed over Cynthia herself. She doesn’t hesitate to snap her fingers next to the ear of a sleeping Cynthia when she wants to be caressed and threatened, or to hiss at Cynthia a couple of minutes later to “Improvise!” when the older woman’s inspiration falters and she briefly falls silent. “Try to have more conviction in your voice next time,” Evelyn says after she’s had her orgasm, though she admittedly says it hesitantly and even rather sweetly.
Even more amusing, from the viewpoint of a BDSMer who can’t help seeing Evelyn as a caricature of a certain type of greedy, self-centred bottom, is a plotline involving Evelyn’s desire to be confined overnight. She resourcefully finds a huge old wooden chest downstairs, empties it out, and gets Cynthia to help her lug it up to the bedroom. Unfortunately, Cynthia’s back gives out just as the task is being completed, and Evelyn proves to be a highly unsatisfactory nurse, massaging Cynthia for a while but eventually abandoning the task despite Cynthia’s pleas for her to continue. Evelyn does provide a pill and a glass of water, but no sooner has Cynthia sat up than Evelyn also provides one of her index cards, to Cynthia’s exasperation. We soon see Evelyn being tied up and locked in the chest, only for her to wake Cynthia in the dead of night by calling out urgently. At first it sounds almost like she’s coaching Cynthia to “be nasty”, but it turns out she’s actually saying “pinastri”, and Cynthia’s hurried, solicitous response indicates that this is Evelyn’s safeword. She releases Evelyn from the box and asks what’s wrong, only to be told the problem is a mosquito bite. “Maybe you can put me back in there, but just don’t tie me,” Evelyn suggests in her eager way, but Cynthia will have none of it. “Come to bed,” she insists – and Evelyn, though she protests ineffectually, ends up obeying a genuine instruction for a change. It perhaps bears pointing out that “pinastri” is actually an insect reference, though neither Sphinx pinastri (the pine-hawk moth) nor Hamearis lucina (the Duke of Burgundy, a kind of butterfly) is especially important to the plot of the movie.
There are other moments in the film when Cynthia appears to be in the driver’s seat, though they’re few and far between. The most significant takes place on Evelyn’s birthday, when Cynthia is angry at Evelyn for having polished another woman’s boots. Cynthia forces Evelyn to bake her own birthday cake and then, wearing comfortable clothes instead of one of the elaborate outfits Evelyn has purchased for her, digs in while Evelyn lies unhappily at her feet. “Pinastri,” Evelyn says almost immediately, only for a foot to descend gently but abruptly across her mouth. “Oh, if we could all just say pinastri to end our torments,” Cynthia intones, and for once she comes across as fully in control and determined to play her own game rather than Evelyn’s. Of course, it’s possible that Cynthia is just getting back at Evelyn for extracurricular boot-polishing here, rather than indulging a genuine dominant streak. Cynthia is a very interesting character, much more rounded and complex than the average fantasy dominatrix. Being Evelyn’s service top clearly doesn’t suit her, and she often gives the impression that she’d prefer a vanilla relationship, but her flashes of real authority make me wonder if her ideal partner would actually be a slave girl who was prepared to drop the silly choreography and concentrate on doing as she was bloody well told. Either way, if I lived next door I’d probably be asking My Lady’s permission to drop by Cynthia’s house and offer her a proper backrub.
Peter Strickland could perhaps be accused of suggesting that all BDSM is essentially contrived, that we submissives are just a caste of manipulative thrill-seekers pushing metaphorical if not literal index cards at the forbearing dominants who cater to our whims. Not having telepathic powers, though, I’m hesitant to read this much into his depiction of one particular relationship, and it seems equally possible that he simply conceived of Evelyn as a bad, bratty slave girl and Cynthia as a haplessly over-indulgent mistress. Be that as it may, you’ll have to excuse me – I’ve got some index cards to write up.
(No, not really. I shudder to think of how My Lady might react if I ever tried such a thing – and I wouldn’t want to anyway.)