This article has been peer reviewed

Sadomasochism has been a largely heteronormatively perceived subject in mainstream cinema. But then, The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014), an unusual relationship story set against the backdrop of lesbian sadomasochism, came along. The film pairs two subjects that are not often cinematically associated together. The film also received considerable buzz at both big and small film festivals. Lesbian reviewer Fikri championed the film as “the lesbian BDSM (bondage/discipline/sadomasochism) film you’ve been waiting for.”1 Fikri’s review brings up such popular BDSM-themed films as Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002) and Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015) in emphasising how “heartbreakingly good,” positively “erotic,” and non-male-minded Burgundy is.2 Indeed, a same-sex May-December romance set in a fantastical milieu and strained by sexual imbalance and incongruent relationship goals is not a common theme in mainstream, and even queer, cinemas. Burgundy eschews the normative gaze that those mainstream representations channel in a non-narrative, temporally queer form. The queer viewer here doesn’t need to employ such counter-normative viewing agendas. 

Burgundy was warmly welcomed at both major arthouse and more specialised queer festivals; it checked the boxes of both film festivals’ programming criteria: “new, aesthetically innovative content” in the former and “positive images of community members” in the latter.3 As such, the audience at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival found Burgundy (world premiere) in a line-up of “Vanguard” films that twist genre conventions and defy spectatorial expectations, but not quite exactly in the company of lesbian or genre films. On the other hand, it was also a popular feature at queer film festivals between 2014 and 2016, for example, the 2015 UW-Madison’s Reel Love LGBT Film Festival and the 2016 Rainbow Reel Tokyo – Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. The idea of witnessing a utopic non-heterosexual BDSM-centred community and its many non-conforming customs was decidedly a surreal triumph to queer viewers. It is surreal in the way that the film pivots on entomological erotica and contradictory observations about BDSM behaviour, leaving the viewer questioning their reality and thirsting for a grasp of what they just watched. The critical debate over whether the contemporaneous mainstream Fifty Shades of Grey or Burgundy depicted BDSM better, from which this article’s title is drawn, is one example of a dialectic of mainstream reality and arthouse surreality that Burgundy inspired.4

By juxtaposing mainstream imaginaries of lesbian and sadomasochistic desire on screen and the aesthetic and narrative strategies in the film, this article will address the dialectic of surreal and real in Burgundy in the context of its form and viewing practices at the queer film festival. I argue that Burgundy engineers a formative discourse that actively engages the social and/or cinematic knowledge queer festival-goers bring with them, culminating in what I will refer to as a “dialectically surreal” viewing process that questions the conventional perceptions of film genres, sexploitation, and queer desire. Sergei Eisenstein’s dialectical approach to film form, one of the earliest takes on the rhetorical and metaphorical nature of montage, will help to illuminate how Burgundy’s consistent audio-visual juxtaposition of human life and material objects and insects brings forth the collision of sociological ideas and entomological rhetoric. In what follows, I will first provide a textual – as well as intertextual – analysis of Burgundy whose surreality unfolds in dialectical tension with mainstream portrayals of lesbian desire and BDSM on screen, then mobilise Eisenstein’s theory of dialectical montage as a conceptual underpinning to discuss surrealism as the film’s narrative form, and finally turn to its viewing experience at the queer film festival as a surrealistic discourse. 

Burgundy’s Surreality Versus Mainstream Imaginaries on Screen

Situated in the context of queer film festivals, this actively counter-mainstream surrealist narrative of Burgundy renders the viewing experience surreal by experientially highlighting the absence of opposing forces – hetero and homonormativity. Coined by Lisa Duggan in her discussion on its origin in neoliberal sexual politics, homonormativity concerns the implicit narrowing of equality and sexual freedom at the expense of “queerer” representation, that allows for heterosexuals to characterise the majority/mainstream and sustain their predominance.5 As such, Stuart Richards identifies three characteristics in homonormative cinema: depoliticisation and consumerism, domesticity, and recreated hierarchies of sexual identities within the queer community, all of which cater to heterosexual audiences.6 Differing greatly from those homonormative images, Burgundy takes place in an insular all-female world where sadomasochism and lepidopterology7 are everyday subjects. Central to the film is the long-time, age-gap romantic relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia, who play a submissive maid and a domineering mistress respectively in their heavily scripted sadomasochistic routine repeated throughout. Outside of this routine, however, Evelyn is the true mistress who demands Cynthia to adhere to the script, whereas Cynthia, putting up with Evelyn’s tiresome narrative, is seen repeatedly checking on her during their play and at some points urging her to break away from the script. The routine gradually falls apart, bringing to light the inherently conflictual nature of the relationship, their push-pull dynamics, and an increasingly dreary cyclical pattern. 

While popular lesbian and sadomasochistic themed films often pick up the coming-out and self-discovery tropes, Burgundy adopts a surrealist approach by highlighting the mundane in the assumably titillating BDSM-esque foreplay and the (dis)equilibrium in single-sex relationships. More importantly, its surrealist interest manifests itself on an intertextual plane, to quote Michael Richardson, “exploring the conjunctions, the points of contact, between different realms of existence”8 – between the film’s story world and our world. An exposition of the film’s elements reveals a stylistic queer film. From aesthetic style to narrational approach, Burgundy operates with a deceptive intent that directs the viewer towards a dialectic of the surreal and real. It never strips away any social contexts or controversies, but instead creates a brand-new culture and hence a surreality. This original diegesis in turn begs the viewer to process Burgundy’s world in comparison with their own reality. In elaborating on the film’s dialectical form and queer spectatorship, I will discuss its aesthetics, narrativity, and intertextuality, and examine how they weave a dialectically surreal spectatorial experience.


Burgundy’s elaborate deception begins with the very title of the film: the word “Duke” invokes a picture of “some kind of tasteful period film,”9 which contrasts sharply with the narrative premise. To go further down the historical rabbit hole, the actual Duchy of Burgundy reached its end in 1477 in the absence of a male heir, thus effecting a film title that “encodes a history of male extinction and qualified female succession.”10 Named after a kind of rare European butterfly, Burgundy embeds the study and visuals of butterflies heavily in the culture of its secluded society; all the characters are either teachers or students of entomology and lepidopterology. To Strickland, the texture of butterflies and of the underwear provides a sensuous, surrealist yet decadent quality to the film.11 At first glance, this textural style seems to promise a sexy BDSM film, but in fact, is part of a biting satire on the genre’s conventions. Most mainstream BDSM films place a heterosexual couple at the centre and are often criticised for catering to the male gaze: women are often bossy masochists who receive pain as pleasure, whereas men are restrained sadists who justify their sadism as rational behaviour.12 Their sadomasochistic tale often develops towards a self-reassuring downfall of the masochistic woman desperate for more extreme pain and insult in the end. On the contrary, Burgundy divulges that a lot of drudgery goes into this seemingly sexy practice. 

In contemporary mainstream lesbian cinema, the perpetuation of a normative ideal – that is, white, middle-class, and femme – reinforces a homonormative embrace on the part of heterosexual viewers. Just to provide a glimpse of such representation in the past two decades, such period films as The Duchess (Saul Dibb, 2008) and Farewell, My Queen (Benoȋt Jacquot, 2012) offer a heightened display of sapphic sensation in their female historical figures as circumstantial cases of lesbian romance, and eventually deny such suggestions of homosexuality on the “hard” evidence of a heterosexual patriarchy, a trope more colloquially known as queerbaiting.13 More thoughtful star-featuring films in the last decade rely on the viewer’s prior knowledge of historical times in their disruptive flourishes on female/lesbian agency, for instance, the titular character of Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) declaring sexual autonomy in a custody dispute with her former husband in the early ‘50s, and the ridiculing of male characters by superfluous makeup and ludicrous entertainment in The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018), and yet, all of them are still very white, traditionally feminine, and wealthy. Burgundy sidesteps this trope: instead of playing on the traditional use of class, race, and gender in BDSM, the film builds an alien world where there are no ideological counterpoints between gender, class, and lifestyle. Although it was the director’s intention to create ideological conflict only in the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia by homogenising every other aspect of the diegesis,14 this obliteration of diegetic counterpoints, I would argue, produces another counterpoint, not in the images, but in the viewer’s mind, between the diegetic surreality and our filmgoing reality. The conflict reflected in Burgundy’s aesthetics does not only reside in the visual or audio-visual counterpoints that Eisenstein addressed, but also in the viewer’s knowledge of the aforementioned cinematic conventions and real-world experience. In a more specific context of the queer film festival circuit, the film’s screening at such a highly regulated queer environment adds to its already queer temporality and space. Here it also plays the role of “a public culture to be debated in a semi-structured environment involving specialists and non-specialists.”15 


In a markedly surrealist fashion, Burgundy’s non-specific time and place depart from the heteronormative history and class system of our reality. Still, the architecture, costume design, and living environments that should be familiar to modern filmgoers indicate a possibility that it could be somewhere in a European upper-middle class society around the ‘70s. They seem to live in a barter economy, but it is never explained how they can enjoy such a luxurious lifestyle without really working, with the exception of the entomologists who give lectures and the carpenter who specialises in creating bespoke BDSM items). There might be an academic institution conferring some sort of social status, but such power difference is narratively evened out by the fact that it gives way to a form of sexual masochism that empowers the “submissive” Evelyn. This goes against what Elizabeth Freeman identifies in our temporally regulated society as “chrononormativity” pertaining to “the use of time to organize individual human bodies toward maximum productivity”16 as evident in school, work, holidays, and so on. While chrononormativity is the structural and temporal norm in mainstream cinema, I suggest that Burgundy’s temporality is a queer one constructed through a minimum of institutional forces and of predictable temporal experiences. 

Burgundy’s academia-based society

To subvert the viewer’s temporal expectations, Burgundy often offers partial truths in the development of its central relationship and diegesis. By partial truths, I mean diegetic events that are shown to a limited extent and that depend on the viewer’s imagination or speculation in their narrative completion, as opposed to the usual cognitive guidance in the form of dialogue, alternating shots, and structural development, all of which point to the salience of the main characters and major plot events.17 In the beginning of the film, we are tricked into expecting another BDSM film exhibiting abnormal, provocative sex, but then it develops in the direction of increasing sexual fatigue; the piss-or-water mystery in the scripted punishment scene, where Cynthia orders Evelyn to open her mouth, leaves the viewer hanging at the threshold between “sonic intimacy and visual exclusion,” which only furthers the viewer’s “interpretive desire”;18 and even in the climax scene – where the couple resume their sadomasochistic ritual after an argument over Evelyn’s affair with the carpenter – butterflies and the flapping of their wings usurp the screen in the middle of their play, once again handing over the task of completion to the viewer. Such narrative ambiguity and allegorical montage are, however, minimised in mainstream BDSM filmmaking: many start off by introducing the (often female) protagonist as someone new to sadomasochism who gradually explores the pleasure and pain in the learning process; the (mostly male) lover would simply perpetuate various sadomasochistic practices in their sex life. 9½ Weeks (Adrian Lyne, 1986) and Secretary present two prime examples of such narratives. Both female protagonists depend on the sadistic male partner for their own emotional stability, i.e., being accepted into the relationship through male-initiated BDSM practices. With its allusive narrative style and contingent approach, Burgundy breaks a prominent cinematic pattern – what Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt term “heterosynchrony,” which refers to “the pleasure of bringing together in harmony several disparate elements, in a coordination of visibly opposing forces, against all odds.”19 Instead of showing the entirety of events or bringing closure to plotlines, the filmmaker cut parts of the development or left only traces of character actions for the viewer to glean from.

In addition to its quixotic worldview and excision of causal content, Burgundy contrives a distinct queer temporality by finding the couple in a long-term relationship instead of a budding romance. Sadomasochism here is not a new-found hobby or a subject of relationship conflict between the lovers, but a way to sustain or break the relationship. Not only is the conventional formula for romance and BDSM abandoned, but the practical – boring by definition – aspects of the purportedly exciting sadomasochism are also accentuated. Watching them prepare for sadomasochistic practices and disagree on those very practices, the viewer comes to discover the dull, unsatisfactory side of BDSM, and might feel cheated by the enduring images of arousing BDSM acts in mainstream films. Furthermore, the characterisations of sadists and masochists are usually clear-cut in popular cinema. As Strickland notes, however, Evelyn’s brand of masochism has a sadist touch to it – she is the one who commands – a sexual duality demonstrated in one of his sources of inspiration Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967).20 In his article about the sadist-masochist belle of Buñuel’s film, Stephen Forcer, following psychoanalytic theory, lays out that sadism and masochism are really two sides of the same coin.21 The protagonist Séverine Serizy, living a supposedly content married life, performs masochistic sex “through sadistic agency and causality” as a libidinal self in sexual discovery.22 Evelyn is undoubtably way past the discovery phase; she poses as the superior half in the relationship, albeit acting as a submissive maid. Without the placement of opposites – for example, heterosexuals and “healthy” sex life – Burgundy exposes the problems of a consensual sadomasochistic relationship as well as power shifts in BDSM practices. Rather than the couple firing up their sexual drive through BDSM,  the film depicts the discrepant attitudes between BDSM practitioners and compromises between lovers, in this case, on the functionality and effectiveness of sadomasochism in their relationship. As mentioned earlier, the usual narrative climax is also absent in the film and is substituted by visual abstractions in a montage sequence and emotionally non-prescriptive music23 in favour of a more autonomous and imaginative viewing experience.


On an intertextual level, Burgundy unintentionally reimagines both cinematic and social history, despite Strickland’s claim that gender, sexuality, and geographical setting are not at stake for the film.24 Openly promoted as a tribute to Euro-sleaze films in the ‘70s, particularly Spanish filmmaker Jesús Franco’s films, Burgundy implies an audience expectation that the film would actively feature sexual thrills from lesbian lovemaking and all those money shots from heteronormative sexploitation films. Regardless of their notoriety for their purpose to get men off, those Euro-sleaze quickies’ heightened stylisation and ability to arouse and engage the viewer’s body earned a reputation of being subversive among cult fans. With those films’ formal eccentricity and aesthetic deviance, this cult audience “foregrounds structures of cinematic discourse and artifice so that the material identity of the film ceases to be a structure made invisible in service of the diegesis. Rather, the film  becomes the primary focus of textual attention.”25 In fact, Strickland was initially attached to this project for a remake of Franco’s Lorna the Exorcist (1974). Yet, instead of shooting a boring dated remake, he chose to “take some of the basic elements – such as the female lovers, the stereotype of the sadomasochism – and peak behind the curtain a little bit. Catch them out of character; catch the dominant woman in her pajamas.”26

Burgundy’s alternatives to those sexploitative scenes are off-screen nudity, urophilia, and other unsexy pragmatics of sadomasochistic practices. Strickland summed up the “lacklustre” premise best: “The starting point was, like, the first 15 minutes of one of those films. And then the rest of the film is sort of post-orgasm and exploring what happens once that fantasy’s over. She’s going to take her wig off afterwards; she’s going to take her heels off; she’s going to snore at night—she’s going to be a very different character.”27 Often played by conventionally attractive actors, cinematic BDSM figures have stapled themselves to the mainstream mentality as eccentric depictions of erotic behaviour that might go slightly overboard but could still be deemed acceptable from the perspective of its positioning as mass entertainment. The acceptance of these films as entertainment might owe to their “inherently dominant”28 characters, whose affective distance from the viewer is created by cinematic sadomasochism’s idiosyncrasy and repulsiveness. BDSM-insinuated queer dramas and thrillers have proved more commercially successful than other queer genres in terms of cross-market reception. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972), a lauded pioneer in the lesbian BDSM genre and another key influence on Burgundy,29 displays the manifestation of emotional co-dependency in sadomasochism; Bound (Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski 1996), a more recent imprint on heterosexual moviegoers, showcases a satisfying yet non-destructive brand of strong lesbians.30 With these exceptions that please both communities, I want to suggest that Burgundy, perhaps subconsciously, draws favour from both mainstream and queer cinematic conventions, and capitalises on the queer viewer’s awareness of both the mainstream downplaying and/or stereotypes of queerness and arthouse queer sensations.

Beyond Burgundy’s intertextual dialogue with both highbrow and lowbrow cinematic influences is its representation of a queer reimagination that “indefinitely suspend[s]”31 historical debates over second-wave feminism and lesbianism. While nobody can say definitively that the couple’s representation is “positive,” I would argue that the film carries what Ger Zielinski calls the “corrective motif”32 with its suggestion of an openly lesbian and sadomasochistic society and a submissive-as-domineering practitioner. On the film’s “critical utopian value,” David Church makes a compelling argument that its stable (yet ending) ecosystem that preserves both lesbianism and feminism reconciles the opposing ideologies of second-wave feminists and lesbians in the ‘70s, occupying the middle ground on issues such as the agential legitimacy of lesbians as feminists and the political acceptability of expressing women’s sexuality in sadomasochism and pornography.33 An all-female society and a neutral depiction of sadomasochism set in a pseudo-‘70s era constitute what Church claims as “a queer thought experiment” that engages past feminist-lesbian issues and presents itself as an ongoing thread of the discourse.34 Such a thought experiment is particularly sympathetic to queer viewers who now gather together at queer film festivals.

A Dialectical Approach to Ideologies in Burgundy

To investigate the surreal viewing experience of Burgundy at the queer film festival, it is then essential to consider how the amalgamation of those aesthetic, narrative, and intertextual elements result in a surrealist form and discourse, which is hinged on a dialectical process. Although Peter Strickland never remarked on the employment of dialectics in Burgundy, the fact that he consciously eradicated sociological forces – gender, work, and social taboos like sadomasochism – from the narrative35 set the dialectical form in motion. Such a counterpoint-free diegesis has a great epistemological implication for cinematic spectatorship: “creating a hermetically sealed world where lesbianism and BDSM are the naturalised norms instead of sociosexual outliers was deliberately intended to resist the dominant cinematic tendency toward depth psychologising or pathologising such practices due to their difference.”36 The prevalence of BDSM practices, the authority of entomology over the entire society, and the central couple’s history are never explained. With the film’s reliance on audience expectations and knowledge of mainstream cinematic conventions in doing the subversions from the get-go in mind, I propose that Burgundy be viewed through the dialectic of its single-sex worldview and the mainstream images of lesbianism and BDSM practices. 

Sergei Eisenstein’s dialectic approach serves as an insightful guide into the spectatorial juxtaposition of Burgundy’s surreality and our reality by emphasising the viewer’s thought process. Notwithstanding their Soviet-rooted history,37 his aesthetic principles – the contrapuntal, polyphonic quality of montage, the part-oriented emphasis in the close-up, and so on – still have immense resonances in contemporary cinema and for film theorists.38 Jean Antoine-Dunne, for one, interprets Eisenstein’s writings as expositions of how the symbiotic relationship of spectator and spectacle can be formed through spatial and auditory devices in filmmaking. Eisenstein’s principles are remarkably apparent in the viewing process of Burgundy: “to strike a hammer blow on the psyche” by forging “an interior dynamic relationship between the purveyor of an idea and the recipient whose very psyche is the prey.”39 In Eisenstein’s essay “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” the foundation of art, more specifically of film form, lies in its embodiment of conflict, or a “dialectic principle of dynamics.”40 This idea of conflict in art is built on three bases: its social mission, nature, and methodology. According to Eisenstein, the social mission of art is “to form equitable views by stirring up contradictions within the spectator’s mind.”41 In other words, the film-world is necessarily a world different from our own. For instance, even in historical films that convincingly reproduce the past, the narratives and characters are still told in a dramatic and individual-focused manner. Such contradictions originate from the creative nature of art, which falls between the realms of nature and of industry, and thus yields “a dynamization of the inertia of perception.”42 Finally, the methodology of art creates a rhythm as a result of the conflict between conditioned and unconditioned reflexes. Taken as Eisenstein’s notable examples of the methodology of film, different counterpoints between images and sounds constituted in montage function as a means of “encourag[ing] and direct[ing] the whole thought process.”43 The fragmental nature of montage requires the spectator to draw conceptual connections; and its functions “to build a narrative (by formulating an artificial time and space or guiding the viewer’s attention from one narrative point to another), to control rhythm, to create metaphors, and to make rhetorical points”44 substantiate the dialectical aspect of art. Burgundy’s almost anticlimactic montage of butterflies’ body parts during Evelyn and Cynthia’s play is a case in point: the viewer is forced out of the narrative action to make connections between the lepidopterological reference, the scene, and the spectatorial act of watching this intervention of montage. Added to the use of montage in the film’s actualisation of dialectics, I submit, is the exclusion of an opposing worldview – a hetero/homonormative one.

A montage of butterflies taking over the climactic scene in Burgundy

 Not only utilising assemblages of shots and images which comprise the core of Eisenstein’s dialectics of art, Strickland’s audio-visual style, I argue, also transcends them at times in Burgundy by “violating” various mainstream conventions and subsequently generating a dialectic between avant-garde and mainstream. Rather than viewing against the grain, the queer viewer has to bring in the “grain” in order for the ideological premise of Burgundy to come through: anyone, of any sexuality, could have intimacy and communication issues with their partner. To render such a dialectic underway, Burgundy conjures up a parallel world where we can find all the bits and pieces of human life similar to our own but made manifest by a very different species of beings. Female companions, sadomasochism, and lepidopterology seem to be the very things that dictate the characters’ way of life. 15 minutes into the film – when the central couple’s sadomasochistic play ends and their post-play talk begins – however, more cine-literate viewers would realise, to their pleasure, that the film transpires only under the disguise of European sexploitation movies in the ‘70s. That is, albeit texturally alluding to the lavish, softcore trashiness prominent in such “Euro-sleaze” cult films as Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel, 1971), A Virgin Among the Living Dead (Jesús Franco, 1973), and Beyond the Darkness (Joe D’Amato, 1979), Burgundy sidesteps their overtly psychosexual stylings and instead appropriates those visual trademarks for a surrealist portrayal of a lesbian relationship suffering from sexual desire discrepancies. Accordingly, the cinematic and cultural contradictions in Burgundy – as its social mission and nature – are dialectically materialised in the absence of what was expected for the lesbian and BDSM genres and an authentic narrative world soaked in counterfactuals.

The Surreality of Burgundy at the Queer Film Festival

On top of it as the film form of Burgundy, surrealism is also entangled in the viewing experience of the film at the queer film festival in three ways. First, as Ger Zielinski observes, festival-goers experience a rather surreal communal feeling over the course of a queer film festival: “through the fleeting mechanisms of recognition of resemblances, empathy, identification, repulsion, disidentification, and so on,” the viewing of selected films create “complicated experiential chains of familiarity and difference.”45 In other words, screenings of queer films in different categories of gender, sexual identification, race, and others organize a greatly regulated community-designated space where various queer identities are performed, mediated, and moulded. To put it in alignment with this article’s argument, such viewing experience of Burgundy is first and foremost dialectically surreal in the sense that the variegated queer audience in our reality is now watching another queer community living in a different, perhaps queerer and slightly more monotonous, temporality. 

Second, it is also dialectically surreal in the context of the increasingly hierarchical queer film festival circuit. Since the emergence of the New Queer Cinema in the early ‘90s, queer films have been more culturally assimilated than ever, and “business” film festivals like the Berlin International Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival and established queer film festivals like Frameline and Outfest have become more professionalised in cultivating certain film markets attached to said film festivals.46 Unfortunately, the growth of the queer film festival circuit as well as queer content at prestigious festivals has also led to a congealed collective imagination formed on queer films with more mainstream visibility.47 Owing to its peculiar subject matters and dream-like parallel world, Burgundy then surfaced as “an oppositional voice to the mainstream vision of what is acceptable gay cinema,”48 galvanising the dialectic of surreal and real. 

Lastly, Burgundy engenders a dialectically surreal viewing experience at the queer film festival by virtue of its thematically ambivalent, if not ideologically polarising, narrative. It steers slightly off the staple path to a full-on celebration of the queer community as a collective identity, which is the very core of the queer film festival evidenced by after-parties and carnivalesque celebrations after screenings.49 In spite of its undeniably queer nature and sensibility, it captures more a dismantling of relationship dynamics than an unequivocal rejoicing of queer love (but of course, Cynthia’s meticulous adherence to Evelyn’s script is unquestionably an expression of love). The two protagonists’ positionality does not so much foster one’s queer self-identification or self-definition with them or other queer audience members as pick apart a loving relationship between self and other. Burgundy’s subversive referentiality in terms of cinematic and social history altogether formulates an axis of contention between surreality and reality. 

The Duke of Burgundy situates itself subliminally in counterpoint with the hetero-centric trope of mainstream BDSM movies. The spectatorial dialectic of Burgundy and mainstream lesbian/BDSM movies polishes a sharper focus on what lesbianism, sadomasochism, and even butterflies can mean beyond their typical portrayals in popular cinema. On its relevance to specifically queer spectatorship at the queer film festival, the film epitomises a dialectically surreal queer temporality that ceases the desire to desire,50 confront queerness as the norm, and interrogates complex relationship dynamics. Taking cues from Freeman’s “chrononormativity” and Schoonover and Galt’s “heterosynchrony,” such a temporality in Burgundy can be perceived as one constructed through its historical anachronism and narrative ellipsis. Through normalising a cinematic surreality – a hermetic and self-sustaining all-female community – the film challenges viewers to up their spectatorial game, raising, or confirming, doubts about what mainstream conventions entail as normal, good, and ideal. Burgundy as an alternate reality dis-alienates the subjects of BDSM and homosexuality and calls forth a reconsideration of perceptual facilitation in cinema on the part of the viewer.


  1. Fikri, “‘The Duke Of Burgundy’ Is The Lesbian BDSM Film You’ve Been Waiting For,” Autostraddle, 27 February 2015.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Skadi Loist, “A Complicated Queerness: LGBT Film Festivals and Queer Programming Strategies,” in Coming Soon to a Festival Near You: Programming Film Festivals, Jeffrey Ruoff, ed. (St. Andrews: St. Andrews Film Studies, 2012), pp. 161, 162.
  4. See, for example, Eric Kohn, “Fifty Shades of What? See the S&M Romance ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ Instead,” IndieWire, 26 January 2015.
  5. Lisa Duggan, “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism,” in Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson, eds. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 175-194.
  6. Stuart James Richards, The Queer Film Festival: Popcorn and Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 156-175.
  7. Lepidopterology is the scientific study of butterflies and moths.
  8. Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema (Oxford: Berg, 2006), p. 3.
  9. Peter Strickland and Phelim O’Neill, “Interview With Peter Strickland,” Mongrel Media, September 2014.
  10. Anton Bitel, “Gender Divide in Diptych: Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 91 (July 2019).
  11. Graham Fuller, “Interview: Peter Strickland,” Film Comment, 16 January 2015.
  12. Margot D. Weiss, “Mainstreaming Kink: The Politics of BDSM Representation in U.S. Popular Media,” Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 50, Issue 2-3 (2008): pp. 103-132; Ummni Khan, “Fifty Shades of Ambivalence: BDSM Representation in Pop Culture,” in The Routledge Companion to Media, Sex And Sexuality, Clarissa Smith, Feona Attwood with Brian McNair, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 59-69.
  13. See Ula Lukszo Klein, “Fashionable Failures Ghosting Female Desires on the Big Screen,” in The Cinematic Eighteenth Century: History, Culture, and Adaptation, Srividhya Swaminathan and Steven W. Thomas, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 12-27.
  14. Jose Teodoro, “Of Human Bondage: Peter Strickland on The Duke of Burgundy,” Cinema Scope, Issue 61 (2015).
  15. Janet Harbord, “Contingency, Time, and Event: An Archaeological Approach to the Film Festival,” in Film Festivals: History, Theory, Method, Practice, Marijke de Valck, Brendan Kredell and Skadi Loist, eds. (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 70.
  16. Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 3.
  17. For a brief overview of cognitive practices in classical narrative films, see David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 30-33; for narrative comprehension and affective engagement in film cognition, see Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Motion Pictures (Malden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), Chapters 5 and 6.
  18. Drew Daniel, “The Butterfly Affect: Haptic Vision in Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 91 (July 2019).
  19. Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt, “The Emergence of Queer Cinematic Time,” in their Queer Cinema in the World (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 268.
  20. Fuller, “Interview: Peter Strickland”; Peter Strickland, “Peter Strickland: 6 films that fed into The Duke of Burgundy,” British Film Institute, 14 February 2015.
  21. Stephen Forcer, “Trust me, I’m a director: sex, sadomasochism and institutionalization in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967),” Studies in European Cinema, Volume 1, Issue 1 (2004): pp. 19-29.
  22. Ibid., p. 25.
  23. For a detailed analysis of Burgundy’s soundtrack, along with those of Strickland’s other films, Jean Martin, “Peter Strickland’s Film Sound Tracks: A World of Dreams, Nostalgia and Fear,” Glissando, Volume 26 (2015): pp. 160‐167.
  24. Strickland and O’Neill, “Interview With Peter Strickland.”
  25. Jeffrey Sconce, “’Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style,” Screen, Volume 36, Number 4 (Winter 1995): p. 386.
  26. Ben Nicholson, “Interview: Peter Strickland, ‘The Duke Of Burgundy’,” CineVue, 20 February 2015.
  27. Adrian Mack, “The Duke of Burgundy Director Punctures Eroticism,” Georgia Straight, 11 February 2015.
  28. This is an assumption that Strickland made, with which I agree. Ashley Clark, “The Duke of Hazard: An Interview with Peter Strickland,” Reverse Shot, 22 January 2015; Strickland, “Peter Strickland: 6 films that fed into The Duke of Burgundy.”
  29. Ibid.
  30. For a deep dive into why Bound worked for both heterosexual and lesbian crowds, see Kelly Kessler, “Bound Together: Lesbian Film That’s Family Fun for Everyone,” Film Quarterly, Volume 56, Number 4 (2003): pp. 13-22.
  31. David Church, “Pinning Down the Past: Lesbian Politics and Queer Ecologies in The Duke of Burgundy,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, Volume 7, Number 1 (Spring 2020): p. 12.
  32. Ger Zielinski quoted in Loist, “A Complicated Queerness,” p. 162.
  33. Church, “Pinning Down the Past,” p. 21.
  34. Ibid., p. 22.
  35. Teodoro, “Of Human Bondage: Peter Strickland on The Duke of Burgundy.”
  36. Church, “Pinning Down the Past,” p. 7.
  37. See, for example, Bordwell, “The Idea of Montage in Soviet Art and Film” for an account of Soviet montage films’ tendencies where his, and other exponents’, principles are delineated and compared.
  38. See, for example, Jean Antoine-Dunne and Paula Quigley (eds.), The Montage Principle: Eisenstein in New Cultural and Critical Contexts (New York: Rodopi, 2004) for an anthology of essays on the application of Eisenstein’s theory to contemporary cinema.
  39. Jean Antoine-Dunne, “Introducing Eisenstein’s Theory,” in The Montage Principle: Eisenstein in New Cultural and Critical Contexts, Jean Antoine-Dunne and Paula Quigley, eds. (New York: Rodopi, 2004), p. 4.
  40. Sergei Eisenstein, “A Dialectic Approach To Film Form,” in his Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, edited and translated by Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949/1977), p. 46.
  41. Ibid., p. 46.
  42. Ibid., p, 47
  43. Ibid., p. 62, emphasis in original.
  44. David Bordwell, “The Idea of Montage in Soviet Art and Film,” Cinema Journal, Volume 11, Issue 2 (Spring, 1972): p. 9.
  45. Ger Zielinski, “On the Production of Heterotopia, and Other Spaces, in and around Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, Number 54 (Fall 2012).
  46. Skadi Loist and Ger Zielinski, “On the Development of Queer Film Festivals and Their Media Activism,” in Film Festival Yearbook 4: Film Festivals and Activism, Dina Iordanova and Leshu Torchin, eds. (St. Andrews: St. Andrews Film Studies, 2012), pp. 53-54.
  47. Sarah Schulman, “What is the Role of Gay Film Festivals?” in her My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan/Bush Years, Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2019), pp. 253-255.
  48. Ibid., p. 254.
  49. Richards, The Queer Film Festival, pp. 19-24.
  50. See Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), for an account of concomitant assertions and denials of female desire in the woman’s film.

About The Author

Heidi Ka-Sin Lee is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of International Culture and Communication Studies in Waseda University, Tokyo. Her research interests include lesbian cinema, film theory, film music, intermedial adaptation, and Japanese popular culture. Her dissertation aims to provide a critical framework for discussion on recent mainstream lesbian-themed films featuring star-actresses in the American spectatorial context.

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