Reason for watching it Several people, notably khalinche, had mentioned to me the existence of an arty Hungarian film about lesbian kink, and I was definitely intrigued by the concept.
Circumstances of watching it angelofthenorth had seen it in the cinema and wanted me to see it as well. We live in the future so we could buy and download the film from the internet and that was our evening's entertainment with basically no effort.
Verdict The Duke of Burgundy is a thoughtful character piece, and visually pretty.
The film almost doesn't have a plot, it just shows a bunch of scenes (and Scenes) between the two principals, interspersed with close-ups of insects and grubs (don't watch this film if you're bothered by insects). Their relationship certainly develops, but not according to the expected trajectory of meeting, falling in love, encountering problems and then resolving them. We meet them when their relationship is clearly an ongoing thing, and they have happier moments and worse moments, and there isn't really a resolution on the simplistic level of living happily ever after or splitting up. Meanwhile the world portrayed is sort of vaguely mid-twentieth century central Europe, and the colour palette is autumnal, and there are a lot of pretty old buildings and pretty costumes. There are absolutely no male characters whatsoever; the lovers occasionally interact with an older woman neighbour, once with a carpenter specializing in kink equipment, and several times attend meetings of an all-female entomology society and we get snippets of lectures on insect identification.
One thing I really enjoyed was the detailed characterization and exploring the lovers' emotions. Neither Knudsen as the dominant nor D'Anna as her submissive are what Hollywood usually thinks of as attractive, partly because they're somewhat older than many female leads but mainly because they have really expressive faces. That was a big thing for me; I'm so used to women portrayed as "beautiful" having doll-like faces and conveying their emotions with minimal facial movement, a single perfect tear or a teeth-hiding smile.
I did like the way that the film shows both the affection and the D/s dynamic between the two women. There is very little in the way of explicit sex, a bit of kissing, some arty blurry double exposure sequences of tangled limbs, and a partner masturbation scene which takes place under the covers and focuses entirely on the actors' faces. The physical aspects of punishment take place behind closed doors, and almost all the cinematography is about building emotional tension rather than putting breasts and bottoms on display for the viewer in the style that's much more typical of sex scenes in vanilla films.
The Duke of Burgundy addresses the kink trope that "the submissive has all the power". Initially we see Cynthia ordering Evelyn around and punishing her for imaginary lapses in following her orders. As the film progresses, we learn that Evelyn is masterminding most of their highly scripted scenes, and indeed often pressuring Cynthia to dominate her in ways that Cynthia isn't always completely comfortable with. Evelyn criticizes her dominant for not dressing up sexy enough (even when she's in pain with a bad back) or for not putting enough conviction into her role. It's interesting the way that this set-up plays with expectations, but I found it went a bit far sometimes; I often couldn't see what Cynthia as the dominant was getting out of the kink dynamic, and Evelyn's criticisms crossed the line into mean sometimes. On the other hand there's a scene where Cynthia completely ignores Evelyn's safeword, saying something like "if only we could all say a word to make our torments end". And perhaps I'm naive but that shocked me, and rather broke my belief in the relationship as one of affection expressed in a D/s context.
I've seen discussions of the MeFi emotional labour thread spinning off this description of sexual submission as abdicating from emotional labour. That's not my experience of submission at all; when I'm subbing I'm putting in a lot of emotional work. Sometimes on actual direct service of my dominant and thinking about their pleasure and so on, but also because I feel like I'm co-creating the scene, it's always a collaboration to decide how things should go and to sustain the emotional dynamic we're into. I don't expect my top to "hold the deal token" single-handed at all, even if they're making the specific decisions in the moment. And there's the whole thing of communicating what I'm enjoying, the edge between acceptable pain (I don't really do good pain, cos I'm not much of a masochist, but there's a certain amount of pain I can accept as part of submission) and too much, and so on, ideally without breaking role, so it's subtle indirect communication, which is effort for me as my most natural communication style is very direct.
Seeing Evelyn being such a very bossy and sometimes mean submissive in the film made me think, is that what I'm like as a submissive? I'm really not passive at all, probably less so in kink contexts than when I'm bottoming in more vanilla sex. In my view of the world sex, even with D/s elements, is supposed to be mutually enjoyable, that's the whole point. But I think in the end the conclusion is that I'm just kinky in a rather different way from the characters in the film, there's a whole range of things that come under the general heading of power exchange.
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