Peter Strickland’s film is a character study that considers the structures of power within a lesbian relationship as they fluctuate between dominance and subservience. The Duke of Burgundy shows that erotica can have substance and doesn’t just exist for male pleasure.
After BDSM received cinematic exposure in the mainstream adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey it quickly became part of the cultural lexicon. Everyone seemed happy to discuss and explore sexual exploits usually kept shushed behind closed doors. The Duke of Burgundy is another film that delves into similar subject matter but its narrative is set in the past, in a time when the dom/sub relationship wasn’t articulated in ‘polite’ society.
Strickland’s film portrays its illicit love story with depth and consideration but it isn’t afraid to articulate intimate moments through a sexualized gaze too. Thematically it’s a film that focuses on the love affair of two women but from a compositional perspective it uses far more traditional cinematography to convey a distinctly male gaze.
This does pose an interesting question and the answer likely depends on who the audience is. Does the male gaze exist when it’s viewed from a female perspective? The Duke of Burgundy’s directed by a man but its story is a female one and its camera direction is supposed to be reflective of the gaze of its lesbian lovers. It’s a debatable (and perhaps problematic) concern and there’s no easy answer. From a thematic and tonal perspective however the sexual imagery on display never seems to exist simply for pleasure and instead works to highlight the ‘type’ of relationship that the characters share.
The Story of The Duke of Burgundy
The narrative follows two entomologists and their lesbian relationship. It’s one that revolves around systems of power and the two women switch between dominance and subservience in carefully constructed moments. They write dialogue for one another and act out the fantasies that they have committed to paper. It’s a love affair of symbiosis, of balance, of honesty (perhaps). But it’s also about the games that they play and the way that those games shape and influence the other. As the story progresses it becomes clear that there is an imbalance in the relationship and their sexual fetishes have subsumed everything else. The film does vacillate between subservience and dominance but once it settles it’s clear that the games that were played are no longer fun. Instead they have infected the relationship and shaped how they perceive one another.
The acting in The Duke of Burgundy is one of its strengths and Strickland has found a strong and charismatic pair in Sidse Babbett Knudsner and Chiara D’Anna. They bounce off each other with a convincing rapport and their articulation of a close and powerful relationship is immediately believable. Between them they create a strong basis for the narrative to build from and they play with audience expectations to great effect. It’s not clear initially who is in charge and the mercurial nature of their love affair ensures that it’s difficult to define their role in the relationship accurately.
Throughout the film Strickland relies on a butterfly motif. His lead characters study the insects in a professional capacity but the opening and shutting of butterfly wings also serves to reflect the femininity inherent in both the film and its imagery. This adds a notable sexuality to each sequence and the motif serves to remind audiences of the narrative’s focus on the female experience.
In fact this adds to the unreal world that the story exists within. It’s a place of symbols and it clearly relates to real life but there are notable absences. The main one being a complete lack of male influence – every character within the film is female. It’s a world where women pleasure women and the film itself is perhaps designed with the female perspective in mind too.
Of course the shot patterns do linger over long female legs, they do show the female body through a sexualized lens, but this never seems to be the inherent purpose of the scenes and sequences. Instead the film artfully explores the characters behind the gaze and depicts a distinct sense of humanity to the women and their experiences. The Duke of Burgundy is a film about female autonomy and it challenges the assumption that women need men for any reason other than procreation.
A Filmic Narrative
The Duke of Burgundy is more than its sexualized parts. It stands as a strong argument, in an age dominated by prestige TV, for why film matters. It’s an experiment in tone. It’s a piece of meditative story telling and it articulates through wonderful imagery the power of the moving image when placed within a developed context. It takes time and it takes patience but it builds to a convincing climax and its form is reflective of its narrative and thematic concerns.
The easiest comparison to make is between The Duke of Burgundy and Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Both films show that female sexual desire doesn’t exist just for male pleasure and it can exist outside of male influence. That’s where The Duke of Burgundy finds a cultural statement and it suggests that our gendered perspective on sexuality is not only wrong but also reductive entirely. There’s a whole wide world of people and the simplistic traditional heterosexual binary (and its implied values) shows a system of power that damages rather than celebrates the diversity of human experience and expression.
It’s a film about transition and in that the Duke of Burgundy finds ample scope for exploration. There’s the butterflies, their metamorphosis something that has already occurred, and there’s the changing power paradigm in the lesbian relationship at the centre of the narrative. Both stand for fitting metaphorical articulations of perhaps the singular truth that life offers up – the only constant is change.
In The Duke of Burgundy Peter Strickland once more shows his aptitude for exploring controversial and societally atomized stories and characters. Like his earlier film Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy focuses on people that society would find strange or unusual and by exploring who they are Strickland manages to normalize behaviors that are traditionally considered as ‘immoral.’
Less is More
The Duke of Burgundy although notably sexual in tone never shows any nudity. It’s a film with a distinct focus on the psychological and its effects on both the characters and the audience watching. This is something that porn producers could learn from and the old adage “less is more” is certainly applicable. There’s a power latent in femininity that Strickland captures in sublime detail and his narrative and its concerns reflect the fact that most sexual desire comes from stimulating the brain and its imaginative capabilities.
Strickland’s film is not gratuitous and it’s not pornographic. Instead it manifests as an art piece, a cinematic moment that explores its characters’ sexuality without any sort of didacticism. Audiences would do well to be as open minded and lacking in judgement.