REKT: The Duke of Burgundy

This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Adrianna Gober’s turn to do the damage. Here are Elbee‘s thoughts on The Duke of Burgundy.

 

Adrianna has been trying to get me to watch The Duke of Burgundy for what seems like decades; this is an absolute fact. When we first discussed the film all those years ago, I told her I had started watching it once and was intrigued, however (as I often do) I fell asleep moments after the opening title sequence. But I always wanted to come back to the film because what I (briefly) saw of it was striking, and lo and behold, she put it on her recommendation list this month, giving me the final push I needed to move the film from “need to watch” to “watched.” Boy howdy, am I glad she did.

There are so many artful elements to this film to sink into, but first I need to talk about the music. The Duke of Burgundy’s beautifully haunting soundtrack (available via Caroline Records) is performed by indie act Cat’s Eyes, a band I have been enamored with since their first album dropped in 2011. Once I recognized Rachel Zeffira’s voice singing over a familiar kind of hazily sullen melody as the opening credits started, I felt a definite sense of being at home with this movie. Couple that with a late ‘60s-slash-early ‘70s vaguely European aesthetic, and I was on board faster than you could say “Rosemary’s Baby” (That kind of look and feel is mysteriously special to me, and I’m not entirely certain why. You know how sometimes things aren’t exactly nostalgic, but they speak to your soul like they are anyway? The Duke of Burgundy is that.).

But let’s get to the meat of this story. We’re introduced to main characters Evelyn and Cynthia through what appears to be a scene taken from classical literature: Evelyn arrives at Cynthia’s petite countryside mansion via her bicycle on what seems to be her first day as Cynthia’s hired help. Cynthia is cold to the young woman (dressed like a wealthy businesswoman with designer heels and pencil skirt, her hair in a neat updo), and commands her sternly to begin her chores — which must be done correctly. The meek Evelyn begins work, and it is when we see that one of her duties is to hand wash and dry Cynthia’s delicate panties that we begin to think perhaps there is more to this relationship than a simple employer/employee dynamic. Indeed, shortly after, it is revealed the two women are a couple roleplaying, and the submissive Evelyn is more than eager to be punished by Cynthia when she neglects to do her chores properly. But, as we learn, their dynamic is even more complicated than that (I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a reveal that blurs the lines of their dom/sub roles in a very subversive way.). So now, instead of a classic Miss Havisham-type scenario, we have a tender look into the relationship of two women who are trying to give enough of themselves over to each other in order to satisfy each individual’s needs while still maintaining their own personas.

This film is valiant in its attempt to show how we all struggle with the same types of relationship imbalances; the moral here is that relationships which go beyond the scope of so-called traditional values are really no different than those which are held in that tradition. I don’t exactly want to spoil anything because this film goes above and beyond what any other I’ve seen does as far as examining the dom/sub relationship in a realistic way, but this film thoughtfully introduces important ideas that need to be shared. I think that fetishes and kink often have one of two reputations to “normal” people: either kink is looked upon as disgusting, or it’s fetishized in itself as being “new” or “exciting” or “playful.” Normal society doesn’t really take kink seriously, but this film does its part to provide the example that kink can be absolutely serious and real, and it can constitute as much emotional turmoil as any regular type of sexual relationship. One element to that sameness is what I’m going to refer to as “the shackles of a relationship,” when one person feels tied down or has been sacrificing a part of his/her identity in order to maintain what is perceived as a happy couplehood. In the case of Evelyn and Cynthia, the struggle for control is what leads to their apparent downfall, and the film presents this imbalance in a way that is entirely relatable. Eventually their game becomes redundant to at least one participant, which shows that even in kink relationships, people grow tired of one other. Evelyn starts to blame Cynthia a bit, saying things like, “It would be nice if you would do it without being asked,” in reference to Cynthia degrading her, in quite the same way Jennifer Aniston tells Vince Vaughn “I want you to want to do the dishes” in the 2006 romantic comedy The Break-Up. The film goes on to show us more relationship tropes including infidelity, jealousy, and pettiness, all of which play out in an interesting way; we are once again compelled to ask ourselves how anyone could not be willing to understand how love plays into our similarities as human beings instead of focusing negatively on our differences in sexual identities.

Performances in this film are strong, especially in the case of Sidse Babett Knudsen as the graceful-yet-fragile Cynthia. One of the things this film does beautifully is exhibit how complex women can be in their characters; Cynthia is an expert in lepidopterology (the study of butterflies), and her experience in the scientific academic field sets her up to be a possible authoritarian. And even though this is probably what appeals to Evelyn about her the most, Cynthia does show a softer and more nuanced side to the typical authoritative stereotype at home. Throughout the film, Cynthia seems as if she’s only going along with Evelyn as she indulges in her kinky fantasies (this is where the theme of sacrifice first comes in to play), and the reservation she secretly holds about their roleplay is expertly shown with restraint by a few forlorn looks in the mirror. Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), like Cynthia, shows both strength and weakness: even though she is the submissive, she knows exactly what she wants from their relationship, and she’s determined to get it. However, when Cynthia shows timidness with delivering on her agreed role, in a moment of instability, Evelyn seeks out her desires elsewhere. The vulnerability the two show as they work out the impact of their mutual issues is phenomenally relatable; again, it all goes to show these themes are universal.

I’m not sure I can fully express how extraordinarily shot and thoughtfully crafted The Duke of Burgundy is. And what is fantastic about it is that it is a highly erotic film — these women are both incredibly sexy, and given the subject matter, almost every scene evokes a sort of amorous curiosity. But, it’s also a film treated with so much care that the eroticism doesn’t get in the way of the story; to put it plainly, you can watch this film and be intrigued — I would go so far as to say “stimulated” — but you can also watch it without the distraction of your metaphorical dick. Eroticism? Yes. Smut? No. Is this the highest compliment I can give a film of this sort? Yes, probably. So, thank you again, Adrianna, for pushing me to watch this film. And in turn, I’m probably going to start pushing it on everyone else.

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