Sex is at the forefront of everything in The Duke of Burgundy; while this hypnotic film’s plot is driven by its characters, the characters are in turn driven by sex. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) follows her lover Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) through increasingly depraved journeys into domination and submission: Cynthia is a reluctant dominatrix, while Evelyn craves humiliation. Both chase each other in a ever widening circle of desire – but the word means something different for each woman, and neither may ever truly find what they need in their relationship.
Between all the safe words and role-play and bondage, Cynthia slowly loses herself – and if she finds herself again, it’s unclear in what form.
The loss of self that Cynthia experiences through Peter Strickland’s brave, bold new film is one that is beautifully rendered, and immeasurably moving despite the hurt (of the kinky and emotional kind) that splinters through it.
At one disarmingly touching moment, toward the beginning of the picture, Cynthia looks Evelyn straight in the eyes and tells her how happy she is to be here with her, and how much she loves her; Cynthia’s love is a romantic one, and while she puts up with Evelyn’s role-playing and insatiable lust for the darker side of the bedroom, what she clearly feels most potently are matters of the heart.
On the other, leather-clad hand is Evelyn’s love; appearing almost purely carnal in nature, Evelyn needs constant attention that borders on nymphomania. So we have two sides of their relationship: sex, and love. And while you may expect the two to be intrinsically linked, hand-in-hand, it is not so in The Duke of Burgundy (although it’s not without an abundance of grey areas).
We quickly discover that the Cynthia we meet at the start of the movie – an iron-clad boss from Hell – isn’t the true Cynthia; once Evelyn’s lust has been satisfied within the film’s first few scenes, Cynthia de-robes and becomes what we can only assume is her regular self; it’s some smart sleight-of-hand from Strickland, and only serves to show us how much Cynthia is willing to change herself for her girlfriend.
While she has somewhat mastered the art of turning into someone completely different, Evelyn’s own effort seems to be lacking; she doesn’t technically role-play, but instead acts as a quieter, more mousey version of herself. This is who she is – this is what she wants her every waking hour to be like. But it’s not the same for Cynthia; she has to hide her true self away from Evelyn, a malleable tool who bends to every whim of its lustful master. Cynthia may be playing the boss during these sessions, but it’s Evelyn who truly has her foot down on proceedings.
Their relationship complicates even further when Evelyn begs for Cynthia to purchase her a box to be locked up in overnight. This kind of self-designed sensual deprivation presents itself as the ultimate kick for Evelyn; for Cynthia, it’s the ultimate chore. The box could be the perfect metaphor; it could easily represent the dark Pandora’s box of Cynthia’s own imagining; it could act as Evelyn’s own mysterious heart, a tough lock that Cynthia is attempting to work out how to pick. Maybe she’ll find herself inside?
Hectic, delirious dream sequences all suggest many things during numerous nights of restless sleep suffered by Cynthia, but ultimately, the box serves as nothing more than a formal distraction, or even light comic relief. The problems she faces won’t be found in any box, but in her bed.
As she furthers her descent into the seemingly bottomless pit that is Evelyn’s sexuality, Cynthia – admirably -keeps the act up. In one particularly incendiary sequence, the screen is blasted with an impressionistic star-gate of butterflies and moths, filling the aspect ratio with identical specimen after identical specimen. Towards the film’s conclusion, she finds herself in a similar loop; the sex is white noise, as her individual voice drowns in the endless static.
The movie ends as it begins, akin to a Möbius strip; Cynthia keeps pretending, and Evelyn keeps getting what she wants. The two women are defined in some way by this, but Cynthia need not worry, for sexuality does not a person make; Evelyn appears only as a blank space to be filled, then quickly wiped again. Cynthia retains a personality, a self – although she may not feel that way in herself. And it’s because of her love that she will continue to serve, despite that love not being reciprocated in the way she dreams about.
She may be caught in a loop, but it’s her loop.
The Duke of Burgundy is in cinemas Friday, February 20.