‘The Duke of Burgundy’ Might Be the Sexiest Film in Years
'50 Shades of Grey' has officially been put on notice by 'The Duke of Burgundy,' the gorgeous and glorious sophomore effort from British director Peter Strickland, the vivid mind behind 'Berberian Sound Studio.' A film which features not a single male actor and which examines the ins and outs of a dominant/submissive relationship, 'The Duke of Burgundy' is also an incredibly smart and surprisingly funny relationship drama.
"It would be nice if I didn't have to ask," Evelyn passively utters to her lover, Cynthia, while draped lazily over a bench, and it's this phrase that embodies not only the dominant/submissive relationship, but the entirety of human romantic relationships as a whole.
'The Duke of Burgundy' perfectly captures the dynamics in this specific relationship, unlike the offensive and crass mimicry of '50 Shades of Grey,' which exists as low-level literary porn for housewives and 'Twilight' fans, and refuses to understand the beautiful complexities—instead treating BDSM as little more than a gimmick. Where '50 Shades' treats its female character as weak-willed and gives her little agency in her submission to her lover, 'The Duke of Burgundy' delivers a narrative where seemingly no men exist and women dominate the landscape, but even better, it understands something very simple and crucial about the submissive and dominant dynamic: the person being dominated is the one with all the power.
Meek housekeeper Evelyn is actually calling all the shots, leaving notes for Cynthia, a well-to-do butterfly expert, and it's Evelyn who purchases all the elaborate outfits that Cynthia wears, and it's Evelyn who orchestrates all their sexual games. One of the best scenes in the film features Evelyn in bed with Cynthia, instructing her lover on what to say while the former pleasures herself, resulting in a hilariously awkward but wonderfully honest sexual interaction. Cynthia isn't quite sure how to improvise and needs to be told all the right things to do to make her lover happy—it can be exhausting.
But relationships are exhausting work. And as 'The Duke of Burgundy' beautifully illustrates through Cynthia's vacillations, one moment you're fully dedicated to making your partner happy, and the next you're not. Aside from its surface trappings of dominance and submission, the film is, at its core, a relationship drama, and all the compromises and exhaustion and dizzying highs and lows it captures are fascinating to behold. Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna give hypnotic performances here, with the camera often trained so closely on their eyes—Cynthia's questioning herself in the mirror, or pained and worn out from the constant wardrobe changes and demands to perform and roleplay for her lover; while Evelyn's eyes are often so bright and eager and needy, driven by her compulsion to be dominated so specifically. Sadly, Evelyn is unable to really relinquish control and allow herself to fully submit to Cynthia—her submission is merely for show.
From the opening credits, one realizes that 'The Duke of Burgundy' is filled with sumptuous quirks: not only is the costume and lingerie designer credited, but the perfume designer as well. Also credited are the numerous butterflies and moths used throughout the film, as well as a "human toilet consultant." Director Peter Strickland has a wonderfully eccentric and very specific vision—the costuming in this film alone is insanely gorgeous, evocative of the 19th century, while still feeling assertive in its modernity.
'The Duke of Burgundy' is possibly the sexiest film in ages, and one that features very little sex between its two stars. There's absolutely no way that '50 Shades of Grey' is going to be a sexy movie, nor will it accurately capture the dynamics in a BDSM relationship, much like the book refused to understand how those relationships function realistically. While Cynthia and Evelyn certainly have their own problems, those problems aren't different from the issues facing a typical couple—the waxing and waning of desire and the energy to make the necessary commitments and compromises. Submission and domination isn't about one person wielding power and physically abusing their lover—the submissive party typically has all the power, and these types of relationships are about exploring those power dynamics in safe, healthy and fun ways.
'The Duke of Burgundy' takes a look at what happens when it stops being fun.