The Duke Of Burgundy

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Love and sex aren’t remotely the same thing, but movies frequently treat them as if they are. Mostly, it’s visual shorthand—if you need to quickly establish deep feelings between two characters, simply having them lock eyes across a crowded room and fall into bed together takes much, much less time than would any credible alternative (as those would all involve conversation). The downside of such ruthless efficiency, however, is that the thorny reality of long-term relationships, with their tension between everyday intimacy and screw-me-now passion, tends to get overlooked. Certainly, the two can coexist; ideally, they should. But it’s rarely quite that easy once a couple has settled into domesticity, and films exploring this potentially fertile dramatic territory—the struggle to keep the spark lit—are rarer still.

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Peter Strickland’s The Duke Of Burgundy, which landed at No. 4 on the A.V. Club’s list of 2015’s best films (three notches too low, if you ask me), takes a delectably offbeat approach to the subject. On the surface, it’s an homage to ’70s softcore erotica—the sort of pseudo-classy semi-porn in which Radley Metzger specialized, back when watching smutty videos in the privacy of your own home wasn’t really an option. But while the story depicts a stylized BDSM relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), it soon becomes clear that Evelyn, who’s ostensibly the bottom, is the one who’s really in control, and that Cynthia, despite barking all the orders, isn’t nearly as excited by role-playing. This shaky dynamic plays out in various ways and is perhaps embodied most memorably by a scene that finds Cynthia’s tender efforts at pillow talk at odds with Evelyn’s desire to be verbally abused while she masturbates. Strickland keeps things just about safe for work (vague offscreen motions, zero nudity), allowing words and faces to reveal the barely bridgeable chasm between the two. Take a look:

Not having seen The Duke Of Burgundy since last year, I’d forgotten that this scene begins with Cynthia fast asleep. Her loud snoring, and Evelyn’s finger-snap in response, will become a running gag, with Evelyn eventually snapping her fingers from inside a locked trunk across the room. At this point, however—about half an hour into the movie, following a lot of heavily scripted (by Evelyn) BDSM ritual—it’s our first clear sign that Cynthia and Evelyn share a fairly run-of-the-mill relationship when they’re not performing as master and servant. It’s also another indication that Evelyn, despite playing the latter role, is the more demanding of the two. Usually, a light shove gets used in situations like this; if the moment is being played for outright comedy, the suffering partner will lean over and hold the snoring partner’s nose closed until she gasps awake. Evelyn’s finger snap is much more authoritarian. It’s the gesture a rich boor makes to attract the attention of a passing waiter. And it’s rewarded by immediate devotion from Cynthia.

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After some goo-goo eyes and caressing, Evelyn gets the ball rolling. “Tell me something,” she says. It’s an intentionally vague way to ask for what she wants, which is dirty talk in character. Being clearer would avoid the confusion that follows, but one frustrating aspect of being a controlling masochist, it would appear, is signaling your desires to the “sadist” without openly asking to be punished or degraded, as any request would presumably kill the fantasy somewhat. As it is, Evelyn is doing a huge amount of stage managing—elsewhere in the film, we see Cynthia consulting instructions Evelyn has written out for her, detailing every step of their role-playing foreplay in elaborate detail. Odds are she’s also written the text of Cynthia’s “I’m not happy” monologue, as she tells Cynthia to go back to the beginning at one point (and also hisses “Improvise!” when Cynthia falters, which suggests that Cynthia hadn’t been doing so previously). But she’d at least like the illusion of spontaneity. So she’s vague.

Cynthia either doesn’t understand what “tell me something” signifies or—more likely—chooses to deliberately misinterpret it. She uses the opportunity to convey her love earnestly, without the BDSM filter. She claims to have a lot to say on the subject. Evelyn doesn’t let her get very far, though, putting in a request for a change of topic: “Talk about the other things.” This, too, is extremely vague, but Cynthia gets it now, and dutifully launches into the mock-angry speech that Evelyn has most likely written for her. Problem is, it’s not a very long speech, and Evelyn is taking a while to orgasm. Anyone who’s ever been in a long-distance relationship and attempted to have phone sex will likely recognize the painful awkwardness that comes from suddenly running out of material in the thick of things. Here, that’s compounded by the fact—which only truly comes into focus in this moment—that Cynthia really isn’t much into being a dominatrix. She’s only doing it because Evelyn needs it, and she loves Evelyn. Not only is she improvising, but she’s also essentially improvising in a language that she barely knows.

She genuinely tries, though, and that’s what I find so intensely moving about this scene, funny though it also sometimes is. Knudsen (whose performance throughout the movie is phenomenal) makes tiny little movements before launching into the monologue, repositioning herself slightly in a way that calls to mind someone shuffling their notes at a lectern. It somehow simultaneously conveys clumsiness and fortitude. The flailing that follows is accompanied by a lot of anxious eye-shifting, as Cynthia visibly struggles to first remember her lines and then to think of something that might excite Evelyn. (Cynthia’s own passion, entomology, creeps into her narrative, as she describes using Evelyn as a human chair while reading about cave crickets. Evelyn’s equally clumsy efforts at being interested in butterflies serves a parallel function.) Best of all is the look of sheer relief that floods Cynthia’s face when she hears Evelyn climax. Sure, she’s happy to have made Evelyn happy, but she’s mostly just thankful that she no longer has to think up abuse.

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In real life, this relationship probably wouldn’t ever get started. If it did, it wouldn’t last very long. Cynthia and Evelyn are too sexually incompatible. But The Duke Of Burgundy isn’t really about sex, much less about sadomasochism. It’s about compromise and the hard work involved when two separate people, each with her own unique set of interests and passions, lead a shared life. Sometimes things work out beautifully—I know one couple, for example, in which the woman, a rabid baseball fan, succeeded in converting her boyfriend, who’d previously been apathetic about sports. Sometimes, though, it’s a bit bumpier, with one person asking the other to demonstrate a little more conviction. What truly matters is the effort, and the sincere attempt to empathize with a mind-set that you don’t share. Without that, there’s not much basis for any relationship.