The Oppressive Softness of ‘The Duke of Burgundy’

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I watched The Duke of Burgundy with someone who experiences ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), whereby certain stimuli that brush against the threshold of nonexistence create a tingling sensation in one’s upper body; it’s said to be pleasant. Some typical ASMR triggers — which have become something of a YouTube phenomenon — include running water, the rustling or crunching of leaves, personal attention (like being measured, getting one’s hair cut), and whispering, all of which are used in hypnotically controlling repetition by writer/director Peter Strickland throughout the film. Strickland also adds some new triggers to the mix, such as popping soap bubbles, and, more strangely, the high-frequency sounds certain moths’ genitals make to confuse approaching, echolocating bats.

It’s interesting that Strickland’s first film, Berberian Sound Studio, was about a man who tortures people to capture the perfect sound clips for horror films: there’s a form of pleasant torture that underlies the experience of watching The Duke of Burgundy. This S&M film would never incorporate the screams and whippings and burnings of the typical sex dungeon, whose sounds you’d imagine could be taken directly from the Berberian Sound Studio character’s collection. No. This film exists in the realm of all things soft and lush and lovely. These, too, can be a form of torture.

With what he described as a consistent ASMR tingling, my friend seemed to be having quite a different experience of the film than myself and my other friend: it had a physical effect on him. His physical entrenchment in the main characters’ — a couple, Evelyn and Cynthia, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna — psychological and sensory power play mirrored their own (though thankfully to a reduced extent). The director was, through the softness of whispers and flapping wings, exerting dominance over the viewers.

The trashily stunning opening credits, which NPR notes recall 1970s softcore films, feature one hilarious touch: a credit that reads, “Perfume by Je Suis Gizella” — this is not a real perfume company, as far as I know (Gisela of Burgundy was, however, a real person — the wife of the Duke of Bavaria). So begins the director’s own insinuating power over the audience’s senses — his assertion of the existence of a soft, pseudo-submissive control. Perfume and scent are already the least blatant of sensory stimuli: more reliant on sight and sound, we most often pay attention to scent when it’s overwhelming. Here, the hilariously porny, exaggeratedly feminine faux-credit is a suggestion of a sense that’s already considered a suggestion. This is obviously not Smell-O-Vision, but if it were, the director all but assures us he would use smell to further enwrap us in his violent amalgam of soft sensations. Like a lover whispering about how they’d punish if you did something “bad,” he suggests what he would suggest.

After the credits, the film, in which the all-female cast dress like ’60s mannequins and study butterflies/moths, begins with a long fake-out, but one which anyone who’s read about the film has already been keyed into. A maid (Evelyn) knocks on the door and is chastised by her employer (Cynthia) for being late. She then subserviently — as she’s a maid overacting the part of a maid — does some generically maid-ish tasks, which her mistress also criticizes. When she flubs her laundry routine, that’s it: her mouth obviously needs to get pissed in. While this sounds like a coarse or questionably male-lensed introduction to the characters’ sex lives, it’s all done through insinuation: all we hear is the stream of urine, then a light choking sound. Despite the sensory deprivation of the visual, the urine-choking crosses the threshold of pissing politesse, letting us know that while this movie may only suggest, it will do so fearlessly, relentlessly.

The aforementioned fake-out is revealed when Master Cynthia takes off her red wig and simply becomes a lover in bed next to the maid, who is not the maid, but also just Cynthia’s lover. Suddenly, just as we can see that it’s intentionally avoiding a gender divide by casting its dissection of power with two women, the film now denies what we originally thought to be a class divide: the lush, all-female fantasy-land of the film seems neutrally bourgeois.

The movie, despite the gendered and classed associations of S&M, is strictly interested in relationships. We learn that it’s not the “domme” who’s controlling the relationship, but the “sub” — as is not uncommon. She’s controlling it to such an extent that the “domme” is actually a prisoner to her own role-playing wigs, her own dominatrix corsets, to the coffin-like box in which she locks her “submissive” partner. (And, interestingly, she’s something of a prisoner to Evelyn’s ideas about what her vagina represents, reflected in a nightmare sequence as a peculiar parallel to the coffin-like box — an abysmal fulfiller of Evelyn’s death drive and controlling hunger for powerlessness, her tyrannical urge to be buried and reduced to nothing). Though she spends a good deal of the film in this box, she’s laid out each and every one of her “domme” partner’s actions in little notes. Again, these dictatorial suggestions. “Don’t let me out immediately when you wake up,” she writes, suggesting that Cynthia go and use the toilet so Evelyn can hear her through her coffin.

The emotional arc of the film is in Cynthia’s disenchantment with her forced dominant role. For the lovers’ role-playing erotica, a smorgasbord of verbal abuse, face-sitting, and mouth-pissing — which doesn’t just steer their nighttime activities, but everything they do throughout the day — is as ordinary and routine for them as any old married couples’ breakfast. What would be extraordinary is a connection not mediated by role playing (Cynthia cannot get a back rub unless she demands it as an act of punishment). At one point Cynthia begins crying while being forced, through their script and tacit agreement, to deride Evelyn. Evelyn, in turn, feels banality creeping into their relationship, and wants to take it in the other direction.

In a recent Defamer interview, Strickland was asked why he chose to make his S&M-based film entirely female, as opposed to male/female, or between two men. Firstly — and this is immediately apparent in the film — he said that he wanted to avoid the commingling of male hegemony and the role-playing dynamic: it wasn’t supposed to be about the fantasy of one gender’s power over the other (a trap a film like 50 Shades will certainly fall into). And Strickland is actually already planning another such film between two men, but for this particular movie, he said, “I guess I wanted something a little softer.”

And so the director uses oppressive softness — reflected in the film’s purposely absurd hyper-feminine utopia — to create a dictatorially luscious portrait. Through this exaggerated — even artificial — “softness,” through the torturous repetition of whispers, trickling water, butterfly wings, moth cries, and light touches, all of which devolve into a banal form of pretty torture, Strickland explores not just the complex power dynamics of S&M, but also the ways so many relationships, regardless of their kinks, deteriorate through the normalization of all things that were once pleasurable, scintillating, and beautiful.