MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2019, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
The BDSM community is built almost entirely around the ideals of enthusiastic consent and the boundaries thereof. It’s not just about sex, but about the exchange of power that two or more people can have with one another, and for some, the roles of dominance and subservience are not just a bit of bedroom fun, but are actually a way of life. Writer-director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is an examination of the dysfunction of a master-submissive relationship, and if you thought that communication was key to a vanilla relationship, that ain’t anything compared to what is required for games of power.
Evelyn serves as Cynthia’s student in lepidopterology – the study of moths and butterflies, a species of which lends its name to the film – but on the weekends she goes to Cynthia’s home to serve as her maid and lover, bossed around to Cynthia’s exacting standards and punished once she fails to achieve as her mistress' commands. However, as we see this dynamic repeat itself, it becomes clear that Evelyn has instructed Cynthia on scenarios that she finds titillating, right down to the exact lines of dialogue they deliver and the timing at which Cynthia “discovers” Evelyn’s “transgressions.” And as we realize just who wields the power in the relationship outside of play, the more it becomes obvious that Cynthia isn’t entirely happy with enacting these fantasies, both because of their repetitive nature and her lack of personal investment in them.
Strickland sets up an interesting dynamic between his two leads, where the submissive partner is constantly pressuring the dominant partner for further extravagances and more exciting punishments, while the dominant partner doesn’t actually take any pleasure from the dominance, meeting her submissive’s needs without any consideration being paid toward her own. It’s an inversion that highlights the necessity of communication, not just in the figurative bedroom – because come on, this is an every-room kind of situation – but in every aspect of a relationship. Evelyn could just as easily hire a dominatrix to deliver her into the naughty servant fantasy and give her the punishments she craves, but instead, she creates a toxic environment for her girlfriend. This not only stagnates their romantic relationship as Cynthia becomes disillusioned with the dangerous appeal of these punishing scenarios, but it also physically hurts Cynthia, as moving equipment injures her back, and Evelyn lacks the sympathy to treat it without the expectant reward of submission and sexual servitude.
This of course devolves and evolves to an ambiguous and thought-provoking climax, but along the way we’re treated to excellent performances that showcase two women who know what they want from a relationship but try to get it from the source that, though easiest and most accessible, is not necessarily right for them. Chiara D’Anna portrays Evelyn as somewhere between petulant and endearing, as she’s demure and deferential right up to the point where things don’t go her way, when she exhibits an expectation that others will act according to her wishes. Meanwhile, Sidse Babett Knudsen does an excellent job of bridging the gap between the role Cynthia must play and the emotions Cynthia is feeling, as wide-eyed distress betrays the depths of feeling that her coolly rehearsed dialogue prohibits her from fully expressing.
The Duke of Burgundy ends up being a challenging film, since it’s one that many might dismiss as inapplicable to their lives, particularly if they and their romantic partner do not engage in any explicitly sexual power play. But relationships are built upon mutual expressions of wants and needs, and if only one partner gets a say in those needs, even if they don’t hold the usual social markers of power, then that relationship can quickly turn toxic. Don’t dismiss The Duke of Burgundy as being simply about the extravagance of BDSM. Your relationships might have just as much to learn from it.