One handy way to think about Peter Strickland’s cinematic work is through its pronounced, indeed insistent historical referentiality to the cinema of the past, and, in particular, to an immediately recognisable look and feel of European independent cinema at the intersection of horror and softcore exploitation. The opening shots of The Duke of Burgundy (2014) offer a case in point: we see a beautiful woman alone by a stream, then cut to sunlight upon water, sunlight through trees, and footage of that same the woman riding a bicycle that repeatedly posterises into high contrast filtered transformations in a palette of warm, jewel-like tones. Though influence may be in the eye of the beholder, a certain viewer might be tempted to spot here a fairly direct homage to the opening credit sequence of Massimo Dallamano’s girlschool slasher giallo film Cose avete fatto a Solange? (What Have You Done to Solange?, 1972), which begins with, yes, footage of beautiful girls riding bicycles that posterise into high-contrast filters as soft female voices sing slightly ominous melodic phrases. One is tempted to ask Strickland: What have you done to What Have You Done to Solange?
But if such gestures are self-conscious citations of style, what are these citations in service of? Given the temporal fold of a contemporary reconstruction of a past style, what are we meant to feel towards such citational gestures, if that is what they are? I want to suggest that Strickland’s films foreground sensory experience as an interface between viewer and world charged by everyday affects: hope, desire, fear, weariness, surprise and frustration. This is neatly insisted upon in The Duke of Burgundy during the film’s same opening credits. In the midst of listing actors and composers the credits swerve to acknowledge “Perfumes by Je Suis Gizella”, a quietly daring upsurge of surrealist branding that tweaks our incapacity to smell what we are seeing. Granting this superfluous announcement its own florid font, the film momentarily becomes an advertisement for a nonexistent commodity. These words serve notice that this film wants us to notice not just the game of reference points it is playing, but also the limitations of our access to the pleasures – erotic, sensory, cinematic – that it just as insistently offers up. Strickland hides as much as he shows, and in foregrounding perception as both medium and problem, his art at once solicits and frustrates our desire as viewers.
Pleasure and its limits: in the context of the film’s plot, which centres upon the accelerating demands and costs of a sadomasochistic erotic contract between a stern but loving dominant Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and the submissive yet demanding Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), the stage is set for a bait and switch in which the premise of a mysterious world of desire founders upon the deflationary comedic revelation of a real world of constraint and quotidian shortfall. Rendered schematically like that, the passage across ‘perversion’ and back again sounds, as an allegory, all too conservative: even kinky people get tired, get bored. Even dominas want backrubs and pajamas. But rather than landing on that alienating keynote – in which sex would be ‘false’ and boredom would be ‘real’ – Strickland’s film persistently plays with our senses, passing through the valley of the shadow of banality and back again into pleasure. Throughout The Duke of Burgundy, we are encouraged to linger in a temporal mode: to look a bit too long at boots, to hold a look for an extra beat, to gape. But we are also encouraged to caress in a tactile mode: to look at the surface of things, and to imagine touching them as we see characters in the film touch themselves, stroke a cat, adjust their stockings and fondle the latch of a wooden box. Our vision in this film becomes an example of film theorist Laura U. Marks’s idea of “haptic vision”, a mode of touching the world through vision that expresses desire and cuts against the distancing impacts of style as historical citation.1
But just as often, in the spirit of a forbidding domina, Strickland cuts off our access, insisting upon limits and obstacles. The barring of perceptual access becomes acute when, at the peak of the first scene together, we watch Cynthia and Evelyn enter the bathroom together and close the door. We hear Cynthia’s command “Lie down. Open your mouth” followed by the unmistakable and yet still mysterious sound of a forceful stream of liquid. Is it piss? Is it water? Held at the threshold of a partial experience, this simultaneous sonic intimacy and visual exclusion generates interpretive desire on the part of the viewer, bringing us close – but not too close – to a scene of sexual and somatic release.
Staring at the frosted glass of the bathroom wall, we see our own inability to see what our ears register all too closely. On one level, this is an index of Strickland’s playful awareness of the generic codes and marketing contours in which a contemporary homage to European softcore exploitation films might also itself need to skirt an X rating on its passage towards arthouse distribution by avoiding anything so ontic and grubby as a direct shot of watersports. Contextually, later shots in the film that show Evelyn drinking copious amounts of water will work retroactively to confirm what we already suspected: presumably, she’s filling herself with sufficient water to render her piss thin and clear enough to be more or less functionally drinkable in a piss scene that we have already participated in even as we were shut out of it.
For some viewers, this is a plot level ‘reveal’ that takes an act of utter banality (watching someone drink a glass of water) and potentially charges it with a lurid frisson of abnormal ‘deviance’. But our attention is so pinned to Cynthia’s facial expression as she gulps it down that in fact our interest is less absorbed by the niceties of a sadomasochistic health regimen than it is cathected onto her imagined attitude towards these acts. She’s on the clock of someone else’s desire, and we register in Cynthia’s face the force of Evelyn’s expectations as they bear down upon her.
As queer theory has taught us, sex can be a self-shattering form of ecstatic liberation from normativity but it can also be a humdrum chore, drained utterly of optimism. In the extended context of a relationship, it can flutter like a butterfly up and down this Richter scale of intensity, not only from day to day but from minute to minute within a given sexual encounter. Sexuality is thus not a holiday from ethics but itself all too located within an ethics of care for the other, and that sense of sex as everyday care work gradually blossoms within the seemingly utopian fantasy space of The Duke of Burgundy.
The film is, on one level, about a banal pitfall that besets the polarities of masochism and sadism: the phenomenon, widely joked about in kink circles, known as the ‘bossy bottom’. As an intersubjective dynamic of reciprocal needs, sadomasochistic roleplay insists upon a centrifugal work of separation and top-down authority: the cold domina on top issues her demands and the submissive on bottom carries them out to the letter. But the bottom’s very desire to be dominated, their voluntary and thrilled breathless willingness to undergo pre-negotiated rituals of punishment transvalues the nature of the alleged ‘cruelty’ on display. As mediated by the letters that Evelyn writes to Cynthia which describe precisely what Cynthia is to say and do to her as she dominates Evelyn, we are in a world in which the prior scripting of these scenes of control indicate the extent to which, throughout, it is Evelyn who is in control of Cynthia, dictating what she is to wear, her tone of voice, the precise length of time that Cynthia is to ‘punish’ Evelyn with confinement in an ominous coffin-like wooden box.
Evelyn’s familiarity with, indeed total security in, the predictable nature of their erotic routine is a quintessential expression of the ‘bossy bottom’ and is richly mined by Strickland for ironic and comedic effects. There is an emotional realism to the performances of these actresses, and Knudsen in particular, as they inhabit these scenes. This raises the question of the function of citational historicist style within Strickland’s films. Style would be, at the directorial level, the expression of auteur level control that hovers unstably with respect to these gendered polarities. We are perhaps a little too accustomed to a macho auteur cinema in which the director is, in a sense, the dom on top and the viewer is the sub on bottom: the director shoves whatever they want in your face and we have to lie there and take it. But a director’s meticulous, pronounced fussiness of insistence upon a tightly constrained register of clothes, décor, gestures and attitudes also begins to savour of the ‘bossy bottom’ who must have things laid out just so in order to achieve their pleasure. Note that this has nothing to do with the sexual or gendered presentation of a given director: whether we are talking about Luchino Visconti’s ormolu luxury or Alfred Hitchcock’s actor-torturing mind-games or Chantal Akerman’s roaring ambient noise or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s pastoral meandering or Gaspar Noé’s tour-de-force, in each case the viewer’s tacit submission to style frames film spectatorship as the sensory experience of acceding to an immanent immersion in someone else’s strict prior and non-negotiable decisions.
But even against that general claim (which is certainly arguable), The Duke of Burgundy wants us to feel its own particular stylishness, its own wrought nature, with a particular vehemence. To that end, the film flagrantly violates realist cinematic codes. We are in a world in which there are no men, in which typewriters, microscopes and slide projectors are the most conspicuous forms of technology, and a world in which labour, whether reading, typing or cleaning, is only depicted within the context of sadomasochistic scenes of roleplay: work has been seemingly abolished in its passage as it becomes play. The archly self-conscious refusal of realism is indicated in a panning shot across the entirely female audience of a lecture on butterflies; as the camera glides serenely across their curious, alert faces, we note at least two mannequins in wigs within this ‘crowd’. The lesson is clear: in cinema, bodies are fantasy props. As such, we might need less of the other than we are supposed to admit in the space of a full dress reciprocal relationship with an actual human being: sometimes a mannequin offers enough of a peg upon which to hang our desire.
But the film is more interesting when it leaps out of the ‘real’ if that ‘real’ is understood as the grounding space of embodiment in which we get turned on, come, and then feel sad or bored or restless or jumpy. The film has other moves to make beyond the deflationary traversal of sadomasochism. Strickland’s haptic vision triumphs in the film’s most unexpected moment of transformation, in which the butterfly as object of knowledge becomes an immanent encounter with something that cannot be controlled but must simply be experienced. First, in an establishing shot we see Evelyn, peering into a microscope. Then, in a deliriously rapid apotheosis, we see with Evelyn’s eyes and are brought closer and closer to an accelerating cascade of images of the shapes of butterfly wings and butterfly bodies, a kaleidoscopic swirl of oranges and browns and blacks, a moiré of wings and limbs shown in intensely crisp detail at maximum magnification. Hyper-real, defiant, odd and relentless, the wings and tones and shapes keep flying towards our eyes: close, closer, closer.
The rapidity of stroboscopic cuts becomes both a visual flurry and a haptic overload of textural delicacy and softness. Transvaluing the sexual top/bottom polarity that contours the film at the level of plot, this cascade of lepidopterous bliss models a kind of disarming softness and delicacy which is also “hard” in its relentless, furious onrush at the level of the tempo of montage. The speed of transformation of one image into another is cued by the film’s sound design at this moment, which becomes a highly volatile sound of ripping and flitting and flapping, at once a rhythm and a tone and a texture, or, to use Kodwo Eshun’s term for the point at which rhythm is also heard as a melodic phrase, a “rhythmelodic” event.2
For much of the film, we have been encouraged to coolly enjoy the hot scene of someone else’s desire: to appreciate the historical and citational apparatus of style in which Evelyn and Cynthia play out their repetitive erotic scripts and private rituals. Looking at Evelyn looking at the microscope, we are made aware of this remove, and then that that remove is itself subtracted by the flutter of wings coming towards us. As a sensory experience of ‘too much’ rather than a sensory moment of constraint and denial, this butterfly moment – the swarming moment of a “butterfly affect” that tips the film sideways – inverts the opening gambit of the impossible advertisement for a perfume that cannot be shown. Instead, we have a kind of desiring plenitude that overpowers narrative momentum, arresting the film’s ongoing allegory of pleasure and its limits in a sensory onrush of hyper-active editing that defiantly crosses the threshold of style as merely historical citation, serving up it in its place an ecstatic moment where vision and desire tremble and melt into one.