Fifty shades of burgundy: Peter Strickland and the exquisite pain of unfulfilled potential

Love it, hate it or “close your eyes and wish it away”-it (I personally oscillate between the last two), there is no denying that Fifty Shades of Grey has made BDSM – or rather, a grossly misrepresented version of it – the buzzword in our conversations, if not our bedrooms. BDSM became so hot it soon transpired that cinema would add fuel to the fire through the release of another BDSM film a week after Fifty Shades.

Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy had me at the trailer: the lesbian dom-sub relationship between two lepidopterists looked full of promise, making me wish that it would be the film to set the record straight on non-vanilla relationships. The stunning visuals, out-of-time atmosphere and critical acclaim further piqued my interest. And of course, the fact that it was directed by Peter Strickland, of neo-giallo Berberian Sound Studio fame, only added to my curiosity.
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Once at the cinema, the film seemed to deliver, starting from the meticulously curated opening titles, which go as far as to feature the fictional perfumes worn by the actors. The twist in the plot came twenty minutes in [spoiler alert!]: we find out that Cynthia is adopting the dom role to please her younger lover Evelyn, a natural-born sub. Her ice-cold allure and inflexible ways are revealed to be a carefully rehearsed act, for Cynthia is following cues penned by Evelyn herself.

“Fantastic – I couldn’t help but think – finally a film that acknowledges the power relation between dom and sub, showing that it is the latter, with her license to stop everything by mentioning the safe word, who calls the shots in the relationship”. And indeed, Evelyn is the one in control, imagining scenarios and buying Cynthia outfits in order to fulfill her fantasies.

Such premise is fascinating, and for the first half hour, everything is perfect: the deceitful first impression, the chemistry between the characters, the remote universe in which the events take place, a land seemingly populated only by women, all scholars in entomology. These are matched by a sensuous cinematography, which supports the plot in full by studiously lingering over the shiny silk of undergarments, the delicate soap bubbles, the brocade drapes that ask for fingers to be run through them, the creaky, stiff feel of leather and the way it moulds to the skin.

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However, I cannot help but feel that the film climaxes too quickly, with both plot and relationship slowly going downhill after the first half hour. While we understand that Evelyn asks Cynthia to go through the same lines again and again in the hope that they’ll become more ingrained and spontaneous, this becomes repetitive and confusing, for at times it is unclear whether we are witnessing a flashback or it’s just the umpteenth repetition. In any case, Evelyn’s tricks are to no avail, because Cynthia’s ideal relationship remains one where her lover wants to sleep in bed next to her rather than being tied and locked into a coffin-looking chest.

Perhaps as a result of this routine, the two begin to drift apart, with Cynthia swapping her corsets for comfy PJ pants and Evelyn deserting the thalamus and getting caught polishing the boots of another woman (we don’t get to find out whether this is a codeword for more serious misconduct or an affront in itself). This introduces an interesting point for reflection: is denying a sub the punishment they long for an even better punishment, or is it just the beginning of a vicious circle? Unfortunately, Strickland doesn’t really engage with it.

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Cinematography becomes similarly repetitive: the progressive zooming in on surfaces (the silky underwear, the warm suds, the brocade curtains…) to arouse our sense of touch is effective at first, but begins to “drag” when we notice it reoccurs over and over again in the same pattern and mode. An exception is represented by the collection of butterflies in their glass cases, which cover the walls of Cynthia’s office, being the subject of her studies. While as recurrent as the other objects, they represent not just a leitmotiv that gives the film its name (the Duke of Burgundy is a butterfly species), but also encompass its message. An object of exquisite cruelty, their colourful wings and pinned down abdomens suggest pleasure and pain, referring to the dynamics of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship but also to the douleur exquise of trying to pin down something that is unattainable.

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And perhaps the relationship between the two is unattainable as well, and breaking point is reached when Cynthia chokes on her lines, unable to continue. Evelyn reacts sympathetically, saying something along the lines of “I know I’m putting you through a lot, I’m just strange that way”. End credits roll soon afterwards. We don’t know who will give in, or if the relationship will survive at all, and therefore lack a real sense of closure.

But it is the banalisation of BDSM, reduced once more to mere kink, that I find most frustrating. The Duke of Burgundy lacks the matter of fact tone of Spader’s Secretary, the drama of Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or the shock, repulsion and controversy generated by Cavani’s Night Porter. From a film based on such an interesting premise, this is a disappointing result and makes The Duke of Burgundy feel like yet another case of unfulfilled potential, with a tempting hot subject explored only superficially, as ticking boxes on a textbook. Foot fetish? Check. Creaking leather corset? Check. Anything that goes beyond common BDSM cliches? Sadly, not enough.

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