The Importance of Being Earnest: The Duke of Burgundy and BDSM Cinema

Guest writer AJ McKenna examines The Duke of Burgundy and the role of BDSM in recent cinema releases.

Cinema has yet to achieve the moral sophistication necessary to deal with sadomasochism on its own terms. By this I mean the terms of S&M, not cinema: cinema has been dealing with sadomasochism on cinema’s terms ever since the Lumiere Brothers got off scaring Parisians out of their wits with footage of an oncoming train.

Since then, through an unending parade of women in peril and muscular supermen, cinema has provided an endless fetishistic spectacle. But what it has never been able to grapple with particularly openly is the thought that you might hurt the one you love because they want you to. Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed might spend the entire last third of two films bashing seven shades of scat out of each other, but neither of those films shows us the aftercare. It would break the rules of cinematic kayfabe. We must believe the thing is done in earnest.

Into this context comes The Duke of Burgundy, and it’s unfortunate that it emerges at the same time as the other, rather more well-known, blockbuster S&M film about a man named after a colour so boring it’s not in the visual spectrum and a girl named after a shorthand term for an eating disorder. It would be better if we could ignore that film, and that is what I intend to do, because at heart, as many other reviewers will have told you, Fifty Missed Opportunities to See Jamie Dornan’s Wang is not, fundamentally, an S&M film, but merely another entry in the romance genre.

Not that that’s without its kinks: I used to work in the genre section of a now-defunct big-box book chain, and can testify first-hand to the strange nature of those who get off reading books about men (surprisingly often in kilts) who ravish the innocent. But again, it’s important in such fiction that – at least initially – the ravishee be unconsenting to the ravishment. We must believe the thing is done in earnest.

The next most obvious point of comparison for The Duke of Burgundy is Secretary, the film which followed Sex, Lies and Videotape and prefigured The Blacklist in exploiting to best effect the creepy-sexy allure of James Spader, and proved to the satisfaction of everyone who wanted to see more of Elizabeth Darko that Maggie was the more interesting Gyllenhaal (or at least could be if Hollywood would give her roles as juicy as the one brother Jake got in Nightcrawler).

But the film that leapt most readily to mind was Love is the Devil, John Maybury’s 1998 biopic of Francis Bacon, which represented a career-best performance for Derek Jacobi, and prefigured the aura of damaged masculinity Daniel Craig would bring to Boring Old Bond in Skyfall. It’s also one of the most honest cinematic attempts to get at the heart of what, exactly, is going on in a sadomasochistic relationship: it’s this it shares with The Duke of Burgundy.

Both films turn on the crucial BDSM fact that it is never actually the dom who is in control (crucially, the key thing Fifty-plus Minutes of Your Life You’ll Never Get Back gets completely bloody wrong). Both do this in strikingly similar ways. In Love is the Devil Craig, playing Bacon’s ill-starred lover, George Dyer, readies himself to batter Bacon with a rolled-up leather belt but, crucially, ruins the scene by leaning in and whispering ‘sorry’ into Jacobi’s ear; in The Duke of Burgundy Cynthia, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, locks her lover Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) in a trunk and walks away, but ruins the scene by walking back and asking Evelyn if she’s sure she can breathe.

Ruined scenes.

Duke director Peter Strickland dwells on these much more than Maybury, and rightly so: Love is the Devil is constrained by the demands of the biopic genre. Maybury has to punctuate the central drama of Bacon and Dyer’s relationship – a game between a sub who is extremely domineering and a dom who’s nowhere near up to the task – with key scenes from Bacon’s life and career: gambling, pissing the winnings up the Colony Room wall, hanging around the Grand Palais while speeches announce une majeure retrospectif.

Strickland, unshackled by such constraints, can focus entirely on the sexual drama between Evelyn and Cynthia. And what Strickland shows us is a woman falling apart – physically and mentally – under the weight of the role she must play. One key way he does this is to show us the artifice of Cynthia and Evelyn’s scenes.

When we first see Evelyn visit Cynthia, we might, perhaps, believe we are watching a genuinely cruel mistress maltreat a faithful servant. But when we see the scene played out a second time, from Cynthia’s perspective, we see what’s really going on.

Cynthia reads a handwritten card from Evelyn, giving precise cues and dialogue for her to follow. Waiting for her big scene, she swallows whole glasses of water to calm her nerves, and she stumbles over lines which, in the earlier rehearsal of the scene, seemed naturalistic. This trick is one Strickland will return to again and again throughout the film – perhaps most powerfully in the scene where Evelyn asks Cynthia to show ‘a little more conviction’ the next time she details the ways in which she’ll punish her submissive.

It’s clear that, like Dyer in Love is the Devil, Cynthia’s heart isn’t really in this whole set-up. She wants Evelyn to massage her; Evelyn says her muscles will cope better with painkillers and a bath. Cynthia wants to lounge around in her pyjamas – Evelyn has bought her a wardrobe full of tightly-fitting dominatrix outfits (I knew I was going to like this film when the opening titles included a credit for costumes and lingerie). Cynthia wants tenderness – Evelyn is more intrigued with the prospect of being used as a human toilet.

But The Duke of Burgundy takes this dynamic in a disturbingly different direction to Love is the Devil. In the latter film, Dyer breaks under the pressure of being an artist’s dominating muse: he can’t deal with embodying the trauma Bacon needs to bring under control, and kills himself. In The Duke of Burgundy Cynthia becomes increasingly frustrated with jumping to Evelyn’s tune; and this irritation culminates, dramatically, in the film’s rape scene.

Which may not look, to the casual viewer, like rape. I’m not entirely sure Strickland realises that’s what it is. But anyone involved in BDSM (such as, to out myself, me) will see clearly that it is: Evelyn says her safe word, and Cynthia refuses to end the scene.

This is the point, morally and dramatically, where the film loses its focus. Strickland seems, after this scene, to be casting around for some way to bring the film to an end on some other note, and throws a flurry of – admittedly quite amazing – effects at us to try and bring this off. He adopts the Magnolia-esque device of having Evelyn mime along to a song on the soundtrack; he has an army of moths fill the visual and aural field; he gives us a dream sequence rich in the iconography of Eros and Thanatos.

This is all visually stunning, and would be justified if we were going somewhere: but instead, what we return to is the terrible suffering of Cynthia, trapped in the role of being Evelyn’s domme, fucking up all her lines.

And this is where I wanted to start throwing things at the screen. You cannot – you cannot – show someone refusing to respect a safe word and then expect us to go back to seeing that person as the victim. But Strickland seems not to realise this, and that brings me back to this: Strickland doesn’t fully realise this is a rape, or can’t bring himself to treat its aftermath as such and for a film which has, up to this point, been so very alert to the nuances and, yes, the problems of a sadomasochistic relationship, this is a catastrophic moral failure.

Ultimately, The Duke of Burgundy makes the same mistake as Secretary. Remember how, at the end of that film, after James Spader goes too far, he and Maggie Gyllenhaal make up and enjoy Deeply Fulfilling Vanilla Sex until the credits? That’s the mistake. S&M is always seen as a poor substitute for The Real Thing (TM).

Cinema can handle sex, it can handle violence, it can sexualise the Hell out of violence as long as it’s sold to us as Genuine Real Violence – but it can’t handle the idea two people might find their fullest sexual expression in consensual violence. And it can’t treat that as a morally serious subject. It has to be comedy, or horror, or a formulaic morality tale. And this is where The Duke of Burgundy fatally fails as a film.

Towards the end, Evelyn promises Cynthia they can do it in a more conventional way, but, in the very final scene, we see her and Cynthia reprising their roles from the start – with Cynthia still glugging down water and repeating her lines with less conviction than a Tory politician. This isn’t real, the film tells us. This isn’t love. And perhaps it isn’t, but the film’s most egregious lie is that we’re expected to still see Cynthia as the victim.

So The Duke of Burgundy is a failure. But what it fails to do is something cinema has always failed to do. And it fails very beautifully indeed. You will not see a more visually inventive and simply ravishing film this year. A lot of my irritation arises from the fact it is undoubtedly a thing of beauty. But it’s a beauty to be wary of. Inevitably – because of that other BDSM movie – The Duke of Burgundy has been spun as a more truthful, more accurate attempt at dealing with sadomasochism on screen. And it is a better stab than Must I Attempt Another Fifty Alternative Titles for that Terrible Film – but that isn’t saying much. We are still waiting for the movie which will be up to the moral challenge of S&M.

But: this summer, you will see a lot of films in which men – and to a lesser extent women – beat the shit out of CGI to a Wagnerian soundtrack. None of those films will show an ounce of The Duke of Burgundy’s delight in a river running over pebbles, wind blowing through a forest, or the sheer visual and tactile wonder of bubbles in soapy water. The Duke of Burgundy is a moral failure but an astonishing cinematographic success. It is the best-looking film you will see this year: but don’t think it’s anything more.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 20.50.19ABOUT THE WRITER: AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.

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One thought on “The Importance of Being Earnest: The Duke of Burgundy and BDSM Cinema

  1. Pingback: 2015 Was Amaze And Shit: Clarissa’s Year In Review! | A Feminist Trash TV & Pop Culture Blog

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