A Male Submissive Watches “The Duke of Burgundy”

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:

“My Dearest,

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.)

BDSM Vignette: Danielle and Martin

The following vignette is meant to illustrate a certain kind of hypothetical BDSM relationship, regarding which I’ll have more to say at the very end of this post.

***

“I wondered how long it would take you to come crawling back for another ass-kicking,” Danielle said, washing down the thought with a swig of her beer. She hadn’t bothered to offer him a drink, or a chair, but it wasn’t like he’d been expecting either.

“I’m not exactly crawling,” Martin protested mildly. “Just showing up for something I think we both need. I’ve been distracted with my job, and a new girlfriend.”

“Another one?” Danielle sniffed. “What’s she, the third this year? Anyway, you’re going to be crawling pretty soon, if you’re serious about needing it.” Danielle had never been much for small talk. She knocked back more beer and rose to her feet, a hard-looking woman in jeans and a shapeless black sweatshirt.

Martin didn’t much like Danielle’s coarse, abrasive ways, or her apparently unrelenting disdain for humanity in general and him in particular. The two of them had almost nothing in common: not their politics, not their hopes and fears, not even their taste in food or movies or music. They had both, oddly enough, been raised in Pentecostal congregations before rebelling as teenagers, but that really was more or less the only significant thing they shared. But God, he needed what she could offer on these long Saturday nights, the pain and degradation that she inflicted without the slightest apology or hesitation. For her part, Martin knew she thought he was a pompous, overeducated weakling, an overgrown boy who put on airs (though Danielle would never have phrased it like that) and needed to be slapped around for his own good. Nevertheless, some quality in him also appealed to her predatory side and made her see tormenting him as a pleasure and privilege. It wasn’t, she had told him in a moment of candour, just that he could take what she liked to call “a good ass-kicking” – there was something about the way he responded to her canes and paddles that delighted her and made her ravenous.

“So, what’ll it be?” Danielle asked bluntly.

Martin lowered his head. “I think we both know what I’m here for,” he murmured.

“Okay, then. You ready to get started?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” She gulped down the rest of her beer, then slapped him fairly hard across the face. “That’s for making me wait so long,” she announced, and her voice held an undertone of something like tenderness.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he gasped, resisting the urge to put a hand to his stinging cheek.

“Don’t worry, I’ll find ways to make you pay.” Danielle plucked at his shirt, now all business again. “Hurry up and strip.”

He shed his clothes efficiently, well aware that Danielle had seen it all before. When he peeled off his boxer shorts, revealing his full erection, she glanced pointedly at his crotch, then up at his face. Then down at the floor.

“Hands and knees,” she told him curtly. “Go straight to the studio.”

She followed closely, kicking him now and then to hold him to a pace that hurt his knees and shins as he crawled across the bare hardwood. Once she leaned down and slapped his right buttock, her heavy hand descending with enough force to make him whimper in pain. Martin heard Danielle laugh as she drove him, slippered foot prodding relentlessly at his intermittently exposed scrotum, to the spartan little room where she did her woodcarving. Her small figures of people and animals were uninspired and kitschy, as far as Martin could see, but they apparently sold well enough to make the difference when rent came due each month. The studio was also where Danielle did her boys.

When he was roughly in the middle of the floor, she grabbed him by the hair and pulled him to a kneeling position. The familiar leather cuffs were already dangling from the ceiling on their long chain, waiting for him. She buckled them quickly around his wrists, then surprised him by hobbling his legs with another pair of shackles whose connecting chain passed through a ring in the floor. Usually she trusted him not to kick or jump around, and the sensation of leather firmly enclosing his ankles unnerved him. What exactly was Danielle planning to do to him? It was already too late to back out, too late to resist.

Martin knew that the long chain that dangled from the ceiling was attached to a winch, which Danielle had once told him rather gleefully had been installed by a friend of hers in exchange for a couple of blow jobs. She seemed interested in his own genitals only to the extent that they were more sensitive to pain than most other parts of his body. Martin could not, in fact, remember a time when Danielle had touched him except to hurt him, restrain him or push him around. Even when they had first met, after a few weeks of correspondence that had begun on a kinky website, there had been no hug or handshake – just a firm instruction to take off his shirt and get down on his knees if he wanted to stay.

Now the winch was pulling him inexorably to his feet, and finally to his toes. Danielle locked the apparatus in place and then came over to him, grinning and clearly in no hurry. She grabbed his chin.

“You little shit,” Danielle said amiably enough. “Time for you to find out what happens when you let my urges build up for too long.” Her hand dropped to his scrotum and clamped down, nails digging in hard. Martin moaned and writhed, which made her grip all the more painful. He sighed in relief when she let go, only to whimper in consternation when she took down the longest and cruellest flogger from the studio wall and swung it viciously through the empty air.

“You’re going to scream, boy,” Danielle promised as she moved in on him, flogger raised and ready.

***

I’m fortunate enough to be the plaything of a woman that I can like and respect, in addition to appreciating her sadistic and dominant streak. After all, My Lady and I were internet friends and fellow writers well before I started taking orders from her. However, I can’t help being intrigued by the idea of submitting to someone whom I genuinely disliked apart from her qualities as a dominant, and who disliked almost everything about me apart from my submissive side. Our mutual antipathy would only make me feel more helpless and subservient, and might inspire on her side a certain harsh, businesslike domination style that I would probably respond well to. The whole thing may be one of those scenarios that works better in the realm of fantasy than in reality, especially for any arrangement involving more than occasional sessions, but I have nothing against indulging in a good fantasy now and then.

S & M (Semantics & Meanings) – Limits

The issue of limits is one of those things that tends to separate BDSM fantasies from the practical realities of submitting to another human being. However hot the idea of sinking to one’s knees and murmuring “do anything to me” might be in principle, we submissives generally have at least some minimal sense of self-preservation. Taken literally, anything could extend to cosmetic amputations, literal starvation diets, or worse (24 hours of high-volume Justin Bieber?). Hence, the need to set some boundaries. One widely recommended way to do this is to come up with a list of hard and soft limits.

“There are two types of limits – hard limits and soft limits. A hard limit is something you will not do under any circumstance. For me that would include scat play, age play, or being turned upside down or spun when tied. Many limits are established by the submissive due to a value objection – either something that you feel is against your moral code or that you are squicked by (“ewwwwww”). Other limits are due to health objectives – spin me around and I will barf. I promise to aim for my Dom’s shoes if He makes me.

“A soft limit is something that at this time you do not think you want to do, but perhaps your Dom/me can convince you. Or it may be something you will only do with a specific Dom/me, or in a specific play situation. For me that might be interrogation. Interrogation squicked me from the beginning, but I have since done a private scene with my Master. It is extreme edge play for me, and not only takes a lot out of me but it has lasting effects, and so it remains a soft limit.”

One of the nice things about being under the thumb of a woman I know and trust is that I don’t feel the need to spell things out quite so explicitly. The only limit in my relationship with her is a mutual understanding that she won’t use her authority to wreck my life. She’s not going to kill me, mutilate me, infect me with horrible diseases, destroy my career, or shatter my relationships with my loved ones. Cosmetic amputations and starvation diets should be off the table, although to my chagrin I’m not so sure about prolonged Justin Bieber sessions. Within those broad margins, she’s more than welcome to make me suffer, even in ways that “squick” me or make me genuinely miserable. That’s part of what I signed up for, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If I were single and in the habit of submitting to near-strangers, I probably would have a list of hard limits, but I’m not sure I’d go in for soft limits – or at least, I’m not I’d use that phrase. Soft limits are just things that a submissive finds difficult to endure, and I’d probably describe them in exactly those terms. A dominant could steer clear of them if she wanted to go easy on me, or make use of them if she was feeling especially cruel. I suppose there might be activities that I would be willing to accept from some pairs of hands but not from others, but I’d think of those less as soft limits than as hard ones that happened to be selectively applied.

I’m even more dubious about what seems to be a widespread opinion that dominants, as well as submissives, should have limits.

“What some submissives do not realize is that Dominants have limits too. They aren’t as formally laid out like a submissives limits should be, but they still have them. I have things I will not do. I find that these things are universal to me. As a Dominant there are places I do not wish to go and when I am a submissive, those limits hold true, as well.”

In my opinion, using the word “limits” for boundaries set by dominants as opposed to submissives has the disadvantage of blurring an important distinction based on power. I’m sure all dominants have places they “do not wish to go”, but that’s not exactly the same thing as submissives having places they are unwilling to be taken. My Lady probably has at least a vague list of things she would never consider doing to a submissive, but I don’t worry too much about what activities might be on that list or whether My Lady finds them repugnant, impractical or merely uninteresting. She’s the one who sets the agenda in our relationship, so it goes without saying that anything she prefers to avoid won’t be happening on her watch. For my part, I can and do talk to her about the contours of my erotic landscape, the peaks of longing and valleys of revulsion and wide dusty plains of indifference, but I’m under no illusions that she’ll necessarily head for the peaks or stay out of the plains and valleys. Conversely, she can steer clear of even the most treacherous valleys in her own landscape without declaring them to be limits, because she’s the one who decides where we’re going in the first place.

Every relationship and casual BDSM fling is different, and I can certainly see how some dominants might feel emotional pressure from their submissives to engage in activities they’d prefer to avoid. In the case of professionals who need to satisfy their clients, of course, the pressure is financial. But to the extent that a dominant’s power over a submissive is genuine, the distinction between her limits and her preferences is surely academic at best.