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Review: The Duke of Burgundy

Mon 27 Jul 2015 In: Movies View at Wayback View at NDHA

The Duke of Burgundy is bound (...) to be a controversial entry in this year's New Zealand International Film Festival. So, what is this film about, apart from lesbians, lepidoptery and BDSM? Mind you, it's very tasteful BDSM, without any female nudity at all. It appears to be set in an alternate universe where men don't exist, at a butterfly scientists conference and focuses on the submission and dominance relationship between two women, the older Cynthia (Sidse Babet Knudsen) and the younger Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). Studying lepidoptery under Cynthia, Evelyn works as a maid to make ends meet, while Cynthia has strict hygiene expectations and 'punishes' Evelyn if her standard of work is less than optimal. But all is not as it seems, and the older woman isn't as dominant as she first appears. Evelyn emerges as a power bottom in this relationship, writing instructions and scripts for their routine couplings. Evelyn is a demanding submissive and is cross at Cynthia for trying to please her with a new inbuilt bed, constructed by a (female) carpenter. Once the bed/trunk is constructed, Evelyn demands to be locked in during the evening, causing back problems for poor Cynthia. Things come to a head over the matter of Evelyn's birthday cake, when Cynthia ignores her sub's safeword. Later, Cynthia catches Evelyn polishing the boots of another lepidoptery lecturer, which she regards as tantamount to infidelity. However, at the film's end, the two women are seen going through exactly the same routines in their erotic play as before. The film was staged in Hungary, and the male producer, Peter Strickland, is from the United Kingdom. So, is this yet another straight man's voyeuristic boring fantasy about lesbian exoticism? It would seem not, as there aren't any male characters in this film, which renders feminist cinematic theories about the "male gaze" somewhat difficult to sustain, given that this often focuses on male characters as relays within the storyline that are supposed to fix women into male-dominated social roles and behaviours. However, there seems to be some attention to the rules of play for consensual adult BDSM sexuality evident within this film. Evelyn is less submissive than she seems, given that she orchestrates the scenes and compels the ostensible top, Cynthia, to follow her routine. This seems to be a healthy BDSM scenario, although warning notes intrude when Cynthia ignores Evelyn's safeword. However, this is over the matter of cake, as opposed to a particular context in which real injury might be caused to the bottom-although leather ethicists might disagree with this, citing the principle that safewords are there precisely to render BDSM consensual. Yet, when the story ends, Cynthia and Evelyn are still locked within their BDSM routines, as if in stasis- nothing seems to have changed in terms of the events of the storyline and their implications. The scenario is richly furnished and shaded, akin to the hamearis lucina (Duke of Burgundy) butterfly itself. So, what are we left with? No-one is really hurt during this film, Evelyn the submissive has most of the erotic power and events move in a circle, finally returning to a stasis point where the relationship hasn't really changed. This is not a 'realist' film, but an arthouse movie. The two lesbians depicted could as easily be two men, so is this a film about fetishism rather than the individual sexual orientation of its ostensible participants? It would seem so. Fetishism is about returning to the scene of the incident or event that prompted the fetishist to eroticise a particular object, interpersonal interaction or sequence of events. After a while, such re-enactments may lose their ability to arouse, resulting in the need for inventive variations, albeit premised on the same theme. Still, the cinematography, storyline and characters do the task. One wonders why those 'professional' wowsers, Upper Hutt's Society for Promotion of Community Standards, have weighed in with their prescriptive, antiquated and subjective religious social conservative 'community standards' over this particular film. The Duke of Burgundy is screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival Recommended: Wikipedia/Duke of Burgundy: Nikola Grodanovitch: "The Duke of Burgundy is a surreal, sublime knockout" Indiewire: 10.09.2014:http://blogs.indiewire. com/theplaylist/tiff-review-peter-stricklands-the-duke-of-burgundy-is-a-surreal-sublime-knock-out-20140910 Stephanie Zacharek: "Review: The Duke of Burgundy is a Delicious Evocation of Seventies Erotica" Village Voice: 20.01.2015: http://www.villagevoice. com/2015-01-21/film/the-duke-of-burgundy/ Chuck Bowen: "The Duke of Burgundy" Slant: 25.01.2015:http://www. Craig Young - 27th July 2015    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Monday, 27th July 2015 - 9:55am

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