Long

Suspenseful Encounters of the Masochistic Kind

‘The ascent from the human body to the work of art and from the work of art to the Idea must take place under the shadow of the whip.’

Gilles Deleuze, ‘Coldness and Cruelty’

 

Peter Strickland’s third feature, The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a film about Masochism. Here, we mean Masochism in le sens fort—as the French say—, which is to say not the cheaply scandalized sexual perversion misunderstood simply as “submission” or even that which is commonly taken as nothing more than the complement of sadism. No, to both his and the film’s great merit, Strickland is careful not to mince terms. Instead, the Masochism we encounter as we delve into the tender and perverse world of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna)—a dom/sub couple whose meticulously controlled and repetitious relationship begins to tread the fine line between boredom and bliss—is that of the refined and distinct pornological[1] structure introduced (or rather, diagnosed) by the Austrian romantic, utopian, and humanist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Thus, in welcome contrast to the bargain-bin provocations of 50 Shades of Grey (2015) and the demonized bourgeois violence of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), The Duke of Burgundy presents a sensitive and studied look at Masochism as it emerges from the literature for which the perversion was named.

This faithful adherence to the literature, however, is certainly not to suggest that Strickland’s film is a mere regurgitation of canonical masochistic tales such as Venus in Furs and The Divorced Woman. No, unlike Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous presentation of Sadism in Salò, o le 120 giornate de Sodoma (1975)—charged by Roland Barthes among others for being too faithful to the literature to succeed as a film in its own right (101: 1976), The Duke of Burgundy departs from a careful reading of Sacher-Masoch in order to present an intimate and singularly cinematic encounter between traditional narrative film and the avant-garde. Further refining the nightmarish chiaroscuro of Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and Katalin Varga (2009), The Duke of Burgundy bares all the marks of the up-and-coming British auteur’s previous works: the engrossingly rich darkness, the masterful and dizzying slights-of-narrative, the strikingly sensorial cinematography. And yet it stands on its own as an astonishingly tender romance that keeps us, like the film’s protagonists, suspended between boredom and bliss, reality and fantasy, pleasure and pain.

Still from The Duke of Burgundy
Still from The Duke of Burgundy

In order to elaborate the complex interplay of forces at work in the film we will first contrast the literary structures of Sadism and Masochism in order to insist on the contemporary importance of the distinction that Strickland reinforces. Second, we will put forward the notions of boredom and bliss as two poles responsible for the principal tension driving the film. And finally, we will place The Duke of Burgundy at the crossroads between the traditions of narrative and avant-garde film in an effort to move away from literary models and to emphasize the uniquely cinematic position that the film takes up. In the end, this is to say that The Duke of Burgundy is not only an achieved addition to Strickland’s œuvre but also offers a rich and compelling addition to ongoing literary and cinematographic dialogues around S&M.

 

The Shadow of the Whip

In Gilles Deleuze’s study of Sadism and Masochism entitled ‘Coldness and Cruelty’, he argues that according to the literary models provided by Sade and Masoch, Sadism and Masochism are in fact not, as per Freud’s well-worn assertion, two sides of the same coin, but rather denote two distinct sexual economies[2]—distinct structures and laws of intimate exchange. This is to suggest that the colloquial definitions of the sadist as “someone who takes pleasure in dominating an other by inflecting violence”, the masochist as “someone who takes pleasure in being the victim of violence”, and their subsequent conflation fail to understand the subtle and complex structures that underpin each perversion. Deleuze, among others,[3] argues on the one hand that Sadism is primarily driven by a will to rationalize and demonstrate obscene sexual violence (1971: 35). Sade’s sadist aims to enumerate and accumulate an ever-worsening series of violent acts with cruel and mathematical precision. To pursue an impossible act of violence so provocative and extreme that it perpetuates itself indefinitely: this is the Sadist’s Ideal. Masochism, on the other hand, is primarily driven by a will to suspend the world—to arrest it in absolute stillness—through sexual violence (often by being literally bound or suspended) so as to depart into a realm of pure fantasy and imagination (ibid.). Masoch’s masochist aims to coerce romantic partners into inflicting contractually obligated and lawful violence by means that are consensual and educational. The masochist must convince the lover to become the torturer. Thus, in contrast to the sadist’s forceful and provocative demonstration of obscenity, the masochist is above all romantic and decent.

Still from The Duke of Burgundy
Still from The Duke of Burgundy

By this cursory sketch alone it is clear that the conflation of sadism and masochism implied by terms like S&M (Sadism & Masochism) and BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism) utterly fails to render any of the critical distinctions fundamental to the two authors—or clinicians,[4] as Deleuze suggests—for which these predilections are named (ibid.: 32). Here, we must recognize that this persists as more than a simple semantic distinction when we consider that the DSM has yet to declassify “sadomasochism” as a mental disorder despite its (or rather their) relative prevalence. This is to insist that the question “what is Masochism?” continues to be neither trivial nor semantic. With this in mind, it becomes clear that The Duke of Burgundy’s faith toward literary Masochism deserves to be praised as more than a rigorous work of adaptation. In turn, by looking more closely at Strickland’s film we can delve further into the subtleties of the Masochistic economy.

 

Contract

The masochist uses contracts to assign the lover to the role of torturer. Initially, it seems that Cynthia—the torturer—dominates Evelyn—the victim—with the cruel tyranny characteristic of the sadist. However, it soon becomes clear that it is Evelyn who instructs Cynthia by means of letters designating the course of their sexual play. Yet these letters or contracts are not enforced like edicts from on high. Rather, they already exist within the context of Cynthia and Evelyn’s loving bond—the ‘ideal love-relationship’ that functions as Masochism’s ‘necessary precondition’ (ibid.: 75). However, it would also be a mistake to assume that Evelyn’s issuing of contracts makes her the “master” or dominant partner (as suggested by The Guardian’s review of The Duke of Burgundy). Instead, she must be understood as ‘a victim that […] needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realize the strangest of schemes’ (ibid.: 20). This distinction is critical since it not only indicates the mutual consent fundamental for Masochism, but also illustrates that the masochistic exchange is primarily lawful—based on laws that are consensually agreed upon and contractually obligated. In turn, this considerable rigidity ends up driving the principal tension within the film: Evelyn’s growing boredom for Cynthia’s contractual play (a point to which I will return). The poles according to which this tension arises can be though of as a conflict between the masochist’s ideal (or, as we shall see, bliss) and the partner’s boredom.

Duke of Burgundy02

Ideal

The masochist’s ideal—what is sought in masochistic play—is to suspend the world in order to escape into a realm of pure fantasy. For Strickland, Evelyn’s fantasy dictates the limits of the film’s diegetic world. We see this most strikingly in the couple’s almost complete isolation. The vast majority of the film is centered on a remote and darkened Hungarian villa whose ‘heavy tapestries’ and ‘cluttered intimacy’ work to ‘create a chiaroscuro where the only things that emerge are suspended gestures and suspended suffering’—Masoch’s setting par excellence (ibid.: 34) The couple’s only exposure to others comes with Cynthia’s passion for entomology (The Duke of Burgundy having been named for a dwindling species of British butterfly whose females are infamously elusive), which leads them to attend lectures at a nearby research institute. In these few public moments, the camera pans through the audience to reveal both the complete absence of men as well as odd (and unexplained) mannequins ominously looming among them. What we encounter here is a radical form of enclosure common to both Sade and Masoch. However, in the masochistic tradition we find this enclosure to be cultural before it is natural (ibid.: 25). In The Duke of Burgundy nature is aestheticized and romanticized—it forms the absolute boundary for the film’s fictional (diegetic) world. The butterflies, the swarming insects, the forest, the camera’s close fixation on leaves, earth, and water: nature forms a condition in which the film takes place. Conversely, what Cynthia and Evelyn’s sexual play calls into question is the world of human interaction, of culture rather than nature. As Deleuze suggests, the ideal suspension sought by the masochist is a means of ‘radically contesting the validity of that which is’ (1971: 31). In turn, we begin to see the film’s fantastical enclosure—its lack of men and scant population, its obsessive focus on Cynthia and Evelyn’s almost total isolation—as a means of suspending the world, which is to say, as a means of contesting and excluding the elements that detract from the pursuit of Evelyn’s fantasy. Indeed, we as viewers are also almost entirely bound to this fantasy.

 

Stillness

The masochist suspends the world—calls it into question—by aspiring towards the absolute stillness of the painting or statue. Immersed in Evelyn’s fantasy, Stickland’s film works towards a state of absolute suspension in which Evelyn and Cynthia aspire to the ‘eternal character’ of the statuesque and the painterly (ibid.: 70). Whether in the form of the dark and heavy villa, Evelyn being literally bound and restrained, the disquieting stillness of the mannequins, or the fixation on mounted insects—The Duke of Burgundy is centered on stasis. ‘Formally speaking’, Deleuze writes ‘masochism is a state of waiting; the masochist experiences waiting in its pure form’ (ibid.: 71). This is most forcefully captured in the film’s climax where, following Evelyn’s insistence on intensifying her own restraint in their perverse play, the couple acquires a trunk in which Cynthia is to lock Evelyn over night. In the spirit of Masoch, here we encounter a complete departure from the world (of the film) into a flight of pure dreamlike fantasy by virtue of Evelyn’s literal restraint in the trunk. As Evelyn lies in the absolute blackness of the trunk, we encounter an image of Cynthia sitting frozen, with legs spread as the camera penetrates slowly into the obscurity of her sex in order to escape completely into Evelyn’s dream/fantasy. Evelyn’s fantasy is marked by her flight from the villa and return to the forest—a departure from the film’s grounded world (the villa) into its limits (the forest). Following this fantasy sequence, the camera pulls back out from the cloacal portal, returning to Cynthia still affixed in inhuman stillness. Here, Cynthia’s stillness becomes ‘the expression, beyond all movement, of a profound state of waiting closer to the sources of life and death’ through which Evelyn contests the world in the pursuit of a fantastic Ideal (1989: 70).  Thus, together with Evelyn we pass from the human body (Cynthia), through the work of art (Cynthia as still life), and into fantasy.

A portrait of Masoch
A portrait of Masoch

Although this stillness spells the fulfillment of Evelyn’s classical masochistic fantasy, it simultaneously functions as the film’s principal source of dramatic tension. For this aspiration towards stillness is conversely, for Cynthia, a great source of boredom. Likewise, if we are to believe Deleuze that movement, above all else, drives the cinematic medium (this is why Deleuze does not include any stills in his two-volumes on cinema), we, as viewers, cannot help but encounter this stillness as a resistance to the medium itself—calling cinema itself into question.

 

Boredom

Boredom, both Cynthia’s and ours, arises as the main source of dramatic tension within Strickland’s film. Along with Cynthia, we grow tired of the endless repetition that structures the couple’s sexual play. Cynthia and Evelyn follow an almost identical routine each day: Evelyn arrives late as Cynthia’s maid; Cynthia assigns chores to Evelyn (as per the specifications made in Evelyn’s letters/contracts); Cynthia sits and observes Evelyn, punishing her periodically be means of humiliation (urinating on her in the bathroom), restraint, and physical violence. Initially, we witness this role-play unfold like the endless loop—fantastically disorienting in its assiduous déjà vu. Likewise, Cynthia pines for the abandonment of their rigid routine in lieu of a “normal” relationship with Evelyn. Stillness, in turn, takes on a dual quality: for Cynthia it is a source of boredom, while for Evelyn it is an unparalleled source of bliss. Discussing Sade in his seminal work of literary criticism The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes writes: ‘Boredom is not far from bliss: it is bliss seen from the shores of pleasure’ (1973: 26). By distinguishing between pleasure as a docile form of satisfaction recuperated by culture and language, and bliss as the loss of self and all it’s cultural and linguistic moors; Barthes insists that pleasure and bliss cannot be reconciled. For, where pleasure is sanctioned by cultural norms, bliss hinges on breaking with the cultural.[6] This irreconcilable duality, in turn, perfectly describes the relationship to stillness that serves as the chief threat to the tranquility of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship. Here, we recognize Cynthia’s boredom as the wedge Strickland drives into literary Masochism. For Masoch’s torturers almost exclusively take pleasure in their alliance with the victim—eventually they take willingly, and often enthusiastically to their roles. In turn, Cynthia’s boredom resists the entire masochistic economy. Likewise, we too share in this boredom as we do in Evelyn’s bliss—very little happens throughout the film: the Masochistic economy is set up, Cynthia’s boredom comes for the forefront as a threat to the quasi-mechanical circuit of their perverse game, and the film ends. Though we are also immersed in Evelyn’s blissful fantasies, they emerge as cracks on a static foundation. Here, we must affirm that this relatively belabored or dragging stillness sets The Duke of Burgundy apart of the aforementioned cinematic works of Sadism and Masochism. Pasolini’s Salò and Haneke’s Piano Teacher, for instance, move towards an unbearably intense conclusion, as if violence itself becomes an all-consuming force that gives way to vertiginous excess.[7] Strickland’s film, on the other hand, seems to end almost arbitrarily. It is much more concerned with setting a structure into play against a subtle and tender form of resistance rather than delivering a grandiose and moralistic prognosis about the intermixing of sexuality and violence.[8] This is to say that, literary models aside, The Duke of Burgundy sets itself apart as a work of singularly cinematic achievement.

 

Lyricism

So far, we have discussed The Duke of Burgundy exclusively in terms of literary models that, as Deleuze suggested in his address to the Paris film school entitled ‘Having an Idea in Cinema’, fails to consider what the film offers us as an idea unique to its mode of (cinematic) expression (1994: 14). So although Strickland’s film adheres rather faithfully to the literary models discussed above it also offers a uniquely cinematic tension: it stages a collision between traditional narrative and avant-garde—non-narrative—film. Specifically, Strickland offsets the traditional narrative movement of the film by employing formal techniques associated with what P. Adams Sitney has called the “lyrical film”. Throughout The Duke of Burgundy, and perhaps most strikingly toward the beginning (before we break away from the nearly mechanical repetition of Cynthia and Evelyn’s perverse play), sections of straightforward narrative are perennially punctuated by abstract, non-narrative sequences that remind us most forcefully of the films of Stan Brakhage. Here, we would be remiss not to affirm Strickland’s use of insects,[9] and specifically the butterfly, as a rather direct homage to Brakhage’s famed short-film Mothlight (1963)—a film in which Brakhage affixed moth wings, blades of grass, and other items found in his backyard between two strips of mylar in order to produce the final result. This is particularly clear during the sequence in which Strickland presents a swarm of insects that transforms into leaves eventually revealed to populate the forest surrounding the villa. Critically, these abstract sequences emerge as aporias or ruptures of the film’s established narrative space. Where traditional narrative films employ established cinematic schema—cinematographic and editing techniques—to stitch or suture (to use Dayan and Oudart’s term) together a seamless a diegetic world, Sitney asserts that Brakhage’s lyrical film ‘transforms itself into the flattened space of Abstract Expressionist painting’ (ibid.). Therefore, counter to the traditions of perspective and editing that ground narrative film; Brakhage attempts to approach the “pure” (unmediated)[10] experience of seeing by flattening the screen and ‘rejecting […] its traditional use as a window into illusion’ (ibid.). Here, we encounter a spatial flattening—the juxtaposition of images, colors, rhythms and intensities—that radically contests and transforms the perspectival space that characterizes narrative film. With this in mind, we recognize the tension between the film’s narrative and non-narrative sequences as a parallel to both the tension between world and fantasy for Evelyn as well as that between boredom and bliss. For the non-narrative sequences intrude upon the coherent narrative of the film in precisely the same way that Evelyn’s fantasy intrudes upon the world of the film and Cynthia’s boredom intrudes upon Masochistic economy. In turn, Strickland’s use of non-narrative sequences offsets the narrative and thereby stages as singularly cinematic tension that accompanies, and perhaps exceeds, the literary models that underpin the film.

 

Hans Bellmer - Sade
Hans Bellmer – Sade

***

 

Considering The Duke of Burgundy alongside a series of literary and cinematographic structures and traditions, we can conclude with three principal claims. First, the film works assiduously to distinguish Masochism from Sadism and, perhaps more importantly, problematizes the frequent confusion of the two. As such, it stands as a unique instance of cinema’s encounter with the literary works of Sade and Masoch. Second, the overriding tension of the film is the irreconcilability of Evelyn’s bliss and Cynthia’s boredom—both of which arise from the fixation on stillness fundamental to Masochism. Here, we as viewers share in both bliss and boredom as the film entices us into Evelyn’s fantasies without precisely moving anywhere. Finally, Strickland’s use of non-narrative sequences offsets the narrative coherence of the film such that the tensions we encounter between boredom and bliss, and likewise between fantasy and reality are reinforced by the presentation of images, sequences, and narrative movement within the film. In the final analysis, The Duke of Burgundy is much more than a “tender love story” or a “filthy movie” (these designations, again, refer to The Guardian’s review of the film). Rather, it offers a rich and careful presentation of Masochism that stands out not only as another achievement in Strickland’s growing œuvre but also among the body of films that have attempted to contend with the worlds of Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Bibliography

Barthes, R. (1976) ‘Sade-Pasolini’. Translated by V. Conley. In: B. Allen, ed. Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poetics of Heresy (1982). Saratoga: Anma Libri.  

Barthes, R. (1973) The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. by Miller, R. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.

Caillois, R. (1938) Le Mythe et l’homme. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. Could not acquire English translation.

Deleuze, G. (1971) ‘Coldness and Cruelty’ in Masochism. Trans. by McNeil, J. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Deleuze, G. (1994) ‘Having an Idea in Cinema’ in Deleuze & Guattari: New Mappings in Politics, Philosophy, and Culture. Trans. by Kaufman, E. ed. by Kaufman, E. and Heller, K. J. London and Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. pp. 14-19.

Kristeva, J. (1997) La révolte intime: Pouvoirs et limites de la psychanalyse II. Paris: Éditions Fayard. Could not acquire English translation.

Sitney, P. A. (2002) Visionary Film. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Filmography

50 Shades of Grey (Dir. Taylor-Johnson, S., Focus Features: 2015).

Berberian Sound Studio (Dir. Strickland, P., Warp X: 2012).

Katalin Varga (Dir. Strickland, P., Libra Film: 2009).

Salò, o le 120 giornate de Sodoma  (Dir. Pasolini, P. P., Produzione Europee Associati:     1975).

The Duke of Burgundy (Dir. Strickland, P., Rook Films: 2014).

The Piano Teacher (Dir. Haneke, M., Arté France Cinema: 2001).

 


[1] “Pornological” is the term Deleuze uses to distinguish the literature of Sade and Masoch as both clinical and pornographic—rather than just the latter, as is so common.

[2] The notion of the “sexual economy” emerges directly out of psychoanalysis but is hardly limited to the psychoanalytic frame. For instance, Georges Bataille’s Erotism: Death and Sensuality as well as his Accursed Share present eroticism in terms of the irreducibility of intimate exchange and the expenditure of energy.

[3] Among which we must count the brilliant readings of Sade undertaken by Georges Bataille (Literature and Evil, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, along with a smattering of other essays throughout his career) and Roland Barthes (Sade, Fourier, Loyola).

[4] ‘The doctor does not invent the illness’, Deleuze writes, ‘he dissociates symptoms that were previously grouped together and links up other that were dissociated. […] Great clinicians are the greatest doctors: when a doctor gives his name to an illness this is a major linguistic and semiological step, inasmuch as a proper name is linked to a given group of signs, that is, a proper name is made to connote signs’ (1971: 15-16).

[6] The notion of bliss or jouissance as a “loss of self” or “loss of cultural and linguistic mooring” has become rather passé in many contemporary philosophical and literary discourse. However, within the scope of the present discussion we will gloss over this development.

[7] This is, as we have already mentioned, the Sadist’s ideal.

[8] Although Pasolini could hardly be thought of as a moral crusader against sexual perversion, Salò’s overt use of Sadism as a form of political critique against Fascism makes it difficult not to connect the representation of Sadism with a catastrophic political and moral prognosis.

[9] One might also argue that Strickland’s use of insects refers to mythological formations along similar lines to those in Roger Caillois’s discussion of the praying mantis in his essay ‘Le mythe et l’homme’ (1938: 38). Here, the association between insect and myth would fit rather well alongside the critical role Deleuze sees mythology to play in Masoch’s writings.

[10] Here, by pure or unmediated we mean unhampered by the task of representation—not the representation of recognizable objects, but rather pure and unidentifiable lines and washes of color.


Darius Lerup just quit his PhD in the department of French at Cambridge. He was researching the intersection between social and ecological ethics in the work of Georges Bataille, Jean-Luc Nancy and Gilles Deleuze by focusing specifically on philosophy, literature, and film. Darius is also an assistant editor for World Picture.