With Fifty Shades of Grey due later this month, there’s a lot of focus on erotica at the cinema, or rather, the near complete lack thereof. Once upon a time, there was a niche market for grown-up films about sex, and it ranged from highbrow arthouse fare like Last Tango in Paris to the sexploitation flicks of grindhouse movies. Erotica used to be a whole healthy ecosystem within cinema, but it disappeared in the 1980s, and now there is only the occasional outlier in grown-up sex-themed movies. This month, though, there are two movies dealing with adult relationships and intimacy and sex: the ubiquitous Fifty Shades, but also the indie gem The Duke of Burgundy, which is now available on demand.
Written and directed by Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio), The Duke of Burgundy calls back to that earlier era of sexploitation cinema in its aesthetics, but it has more in common, philosophically, with the works of Pasolini, Bertolucci, and most especially, the French New Wave. But it’s not inaccessible—you don’t need an MFA to enjoy Burgundy. The plot revolves around the relationship between Cynthia (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her younger lover, Evelyn (previous Strickland collaborator Chiara D’Anna). They’re both entomologists and they live in shabbily idealized sun-drenched chateau circa 1962 in some non-descript corner of the European countryside. The film is so stylized that it includes credits for lingerie design and perfume, and yet it never approaches Wes Anderson levels of preciousness.
Burgundy starts by showing us the dynamic of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship, only to slowly peel back the layers and reveal what’s at the core of their power exchange. Cynthia and Evelyn enact a daily ritual in which Evelyn arrives at Cynthia’s chateau and performs domestic duties like a maid. Cynthia, invariably, finds something wrong with Evelyn’s work and punishes her. We see both women engage in highly ritualized acts, and Cynthia, especially, is fetishized almost to the point of inhumanity. Which is the problem—though Evelyn performs the role of submissive, what she requires from Cynthia is shown to be more than Cynthia would really like to give. Evelyn leaves detailed instructions for Cynthia, buys her complicated lingerie to wear as part of their ritual, and needs increasingly drastic forms of punishment in order to be satisfied. Cynthia would really rather lounge about in her pajamas and hold her partner sweetly.
The world within Burgundy is populated entirely by women, and it seems that everyone is an entomologist and also into BDSM. At one point, the women attempt to pay someone with mounted butterflies, and purchasing beds designed for specific kinks and “human toilets” is treated as wholly normal. This is where Burgundy really shines—in normalizing the taboo, we can dispense with the giggling phase and move straight into the relationship-examination phase. Burgundy explores power, both physical sexual power and the emotional power we give our lovers, and it does it in a frank and unblinking way. Because we see how important the power dynamic is to Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship, when Evelyn is accused of polishing someone else’s boots, we feel that betrayal cut deeply. It’s a non-sexual act, but it fulfills something in Evelyn that Cynthia is struggling to satisfy.
Resentment grows, jealousy abounds, and in the end, there is no real resolution. Cynthia and Evelyn do love each other, and they want to remain together, though they each know that means being slightly less satisfied sexually. The women are equally passionate but they’re not passionate in the same way, but is that really reason enough to end a relationship that is otherwise functional? It’s an age-old question, approached in a unique way. By presenting traditionally taboo kinks as the norm and by removing the loaded male/female binary from the equation, Burgundy is able to explore power, lust, and Eros vs. Agape as the most important part of a relationship without any of the modern societal baggage we usually bring to narratives about love and sex, like judgment and shame.
It’s sexy and kinky, yes, but The Duke of Burgundy is also deeply emotionally resonant because we’re not wasting time on being embarrassed by that sex and kink. This is not a movie about the things two lovers do to each other physically, it’s about communication and intimacy and power, and how we wield those things for and against each other. It’s a visually beautiful film that looks straight out of another era, and it offers a little more stimulation than just tits and ass. If you’re looking for real erotica at the cinema, skip Fifty Shades and give Burgundy a go.