Whilst in recent years, the world of gay media has become more and more saturated with shows such as Drag Race and Queer Eye, healthy lesbian relationships remain hard to come by. Add BDSM, a total lack of men, and an unspecified non-reality setting – and you have yourself a film which is truly one of a kind.
To write a mere blog post about this masterpiece is going to be a challenge. I feel like I could write a thesis on this film – from the exquisite composure of every shot to the intriguing and unique way in which both lesbian and BDSM relationships are explored. I’ve watched this film three times now and each time have discovered more and more beauty and symbolism in its depths. It is a decadent feast for the senses, including both a Lingerie and Perfume Designer in its opening credits and a ‘Human Toilet Consultant’ in its ending. The film floats between these two extremes with ease, from each gorgeous and sensual moment in the boudoir to the extreme degradation at the other end of the sadomasochistic spectrum.
The film opens with a presentation of what appears to be an abusive relationship between a woman, Cynthia and her maid, Evelyn, with Cynthia treating her servant with more and more unfairness and cruelty. The punishments move swiftly forward from mere harsh words to water sports, conducted behind the closed bathroom door. In time, it is revealed not only that these acts are all consensual and pre-planned, but that Evelyn, the submissive, is orchestrating them.
The film is made up an entirely female cast, the score by Cat’s Eyes is hauntingly beautiful stuff and the entire plot pauses for a good twenty minutes to include a hypnotic dream sequence conducted in the space between Cynthia’s legs. Mannequins dominate shots as obviously weird stand-ins for human extras. Reality is far removed from this tale.
So, too, is the male gaze. At least within the constraints of the film, women act only on their own prerogatives. The director may be male, but his construction of this female-only world is so beautifully strange and conducted with such confidence that we as viewers cannot help but accept it.
The true direction of investigation in this film is not women, however. Nor is it sadomasochism. The theme of the film is power, those who wield it, and how they can be disguised. Evelyn spends most of the film “topping from the bottom”, i.e. orchestrating every move whilst remaining in a submissive, masochistic position in the roles she and Cynthia play.
The dynamics of the two women are explored, reversed, picked apart and then put back together again, and by the ambiguous end of the film, it’s unclear what, if anything, has changed.
It’s not a perfect film by any means – some of the script writing is rather inelegant and some viewers could be forgiven for becoming frustrated at the slow-moving plot line. But what the Duke of Burgundy does deliver is a deeply unusual and beautiful exploration of relationships and the power dynamics within them. The viewer is successfully transported into a world which both hints at its placement and displaces you entirely at the same time. We are trapped, as Evelyn traps herself in the chest at the foot of Cynthia’s bed, in the role of voyeur – seduced by the tightening of corsets and the zipping up of leather boots until it is too late and we are forced to observe the imperfectly human mess that lies beneath.