It's not every day that one experiences a film that explores the perils of both domesticity and sadomasochism through a genuinely romantic narrative. Yet that's exactly what Peter Strickland does with his latest film, The Duke of Burgundy. The film depicts a sadomasochistic partnership between two women: lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who finds herself tired of the silly games that come with domination, and her submissive Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), whose expectations only increase with each passing day.
Not exactly the kind of film that regularly gets made now, but in the '70s, these soft-core fantasies were pretty typical. However, Strickland, a filmmaker whose works — Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio, Duke, and even his Björk concert documentary — constantly subvert expectations, offers something rather special with his beautifully modern twist on the very classic sexual drama.
Via email, Strickland discusses how the film came to exist. "There was a loose idea that Rook Films had of remaking Jess Franco’s Lorna the Exorcist," he says. That idea fell by the wayside, but what remained was an interest in that period of Euro sleaze from directors such as Franco, [Walerian] Borowczyk, [Jean] Rollin, and [Alain] Robbe-Grillet.
"These were directors who employed an alchemical approach to the erotic, but it’s a genre which is wrongly seen as disreputable. It’s one of the few genres left in the garbage of cinema history, but there are so many wonderful ideas, stories, and visuals in those films. True, there are some pretty sordid or forgettable films. The sexual politics stank on occasion, but there’s so mileage in those films to try something new. My interest was in setting up the classic submissive fantasy that some of these films would embody for their whole running time, but puncture that within the first 15 minutes and then peek behind the curtain to see the hidden mechanics of it all."
And puncture it he does, dismantling the women's S&M relationship with domesticity. Strickland never hands the audience the basics of Evelyn and Cynthia's relationship — that of dominant and submissive — even though some of them might be witnessing something like this for the first time.
"It's been explained in so many other films," he says. "It felt more exciting to take all that power play for granted and imply that it's normal in that community. I wanted to normalize the sexual role-play because that wasn't the main focus of the film, and normalizing something usually takes that focus away.
"The main focus is how to negotiate desire when two lovers have profoundly different ways of sexually expressing themselves. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s bondage, a basic sexual act, or even the usual arguments about one person getting offered a job that forces a couple to move or one person wanting to start a family earlier than the other. Compromise in a relationship was my main concern."
To that extent, he doesn't even offer background for why the two women have reached this point in their relationship, something he wanted to avoid but now regrets in one case.
"What I wanted to avoid at all costs was a backstory as to why Evelyn had what are assumed in real life as wayward desires. I just wanted the audience to accept her for what she is instead of wondering why. In hindsight, I should’ve done a backstory for why Cynthia had such vanilla desires since she seems to be the only one who has them in that village."
Cynthia's lack of willingness to consistently dominate her partner, within a community seemingly composed of solely women with these interests, is one of the main plot points of The Duke of Burgundy. Sure, everyone loves a little spice in the bedroom, but Evelyn's requests overwhelm her dominant partner, muddling the sub-dom relationship.
About that, Strickland says, "A little vicarious joy goes a long way, but ultimately it’s not in Cynthia’s nature to be cold and domineering, and there’s only so many times you can put on a persona for someone. Evelyn is only truly punished (outside the boundaries of a game) once, and that’s clearly something she finds distressing. Punishment for Evelyn can only be delivered on her terms, and when punishment is genuine, it’s not going to come in the form of stockings and corsets but rather pajamas and dusty socks."
And, interestingly enough, it's rare to see a film of such erotic style and background — involving two women no less — be so focused on the introspective rather than simply sex (think Fifty Shades of Grey).
Instead of being explicit in his presentation of sexuality, Strickland focuses on creating a warm environment in his film through sensual imagery rather than explicit dialogue. To that, he responds with refreshing honesty:
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"Part of it is perhaps the inherent guilt of being a male director filming two women in intimate situations," he admits. "I have no problem with explicit scenes, and I've certainly seen more than my fair share, so my restraint in this film is not out of prudishness. One is always trying to find fresh ways of conveying intimacy or sexual excitement in cinema, and the norm, it seems, is to be increasingly explicit, but suggestion is just as powerful. Since this film has a character obsessed with restraint, it made sense to employ that attitude to the filming."
The Duke of Burgundy continues playing at Miami Beach Cinematheque through Thursday, March 19. Tickets can be purchased at mbcinema.com.
Follow Juan Barquin on Twitter @woahitsjuanito