“The Duke Of Burgundy” Is The Lesbian BDSM Film You’ve Been Waiting For

The Duke of Burgundy is a lesbian BDSM film that you probably don’t know about, but should. Directed by British filmmaker Peter Strickland, it stars Sidse Babett Knudsen (Birgitte Nyborg, Borgen) and Chiara D’Anna. Here, my friend slash fellow SBK lover Rushaa (@thesecondrussia) and I discuss the film in two parts: first, on why you absolutely should watch this movie, and second, unpacking what went on in it. This film and discussion contains sexual content that some people may find distressing.

The Review

Fikri: Let’s start with how amazing it is that this film exists. When I was looking for people to go watch it with me I described it as a “British lesbian S&M film,” because of course, but hi it is a LESBIAN S&M FILM and it is a real thing! And one with a May-December couple at that.

Rushaa: After you told me about it, I googled it and my friend peered over my shoulder and said, “It looks like a lesbian Secretary so I’m going to watch it.”

Fikri: Yeah it’s also really weird that the two of us, of all people, were late to hear about it. I think its mainstream/non-festival release was probably overshadowed by this other big-money film I hear is about “BDSM,” which I shall refer to from now on as The Movie That Shall Not Be Named.

Rushaa: I think it’s great to get a film exploring queer women’s sexuality that isn’t lesbians having babies. Or babies and then tragic accidents, as a particular show I used to watch had.

Fikri: Grey’s?

Rushaa: Last Tango in Halifax.

Fikri: Of course there’s more than one. I might have just discredited myself as a reviewer by outing myself as a Grey’s viewer but that’s related to why I’m doing this at all, right, the reviews that exist now just weren’t doing it for me. In particular, virtually every review I’ve read has pointed out that The Duke of Burgundy has an all-women cast but in a “there are no men but it’s still good!!” way. One of them actually describes this as “an alternate universe in which … reproduction is irrelevant” — I’m sorry, how often is reproduction relevant to your fictional universes?

Rushaa: The all-women cast is a good point. I didn’t even notice.

Fikri: Me too, but if there’s a strong reason to watch the film THIS IS IT.

Rushaa: I mean, all-women was my Friday night.

Fikri: All-women is my aspirational every day.

Rushaa: Amen to that.

Fikri: But back to the portrayal of queer women’s sexuality. What I really appreciated about the film was that it was most definitely not made for the male gaze, which was my no. 1 fear upon hearing it was yet another sexy lesbian film directed by a man.

Rushaa: Agreed. When I got to the cinema they had allocated seating and they sat me right in the middle of two lone men. It was a guy, seat, me, seat, guy. They totally thought it was a different movie. The first guy ran away after I sat down and the second guy was really feeling it until the climax of the first scene and then moved his hand across his mouth away from his crotch and was silent the rest of the time.

Fikri: HAHAHAHAHA

Rushaa: It was certainly better than the time I went to see Blue is the Warmest Colour. I didn’t have to stare men into shame.

Fikri: The movie did it for you!

Rushaa: Which is another reason to love it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXyoPShZvyk

Fikri: The trailer is fairly heavy on the sex and lingerie but I found it to be an incredibly sexy film even with a lot fewer actual sex scenes than you might expect. I don’t always know how to use the word “erotic,” but this captured it perfectly. I might never look at soap bubbles the same way again.

Rushaa: Washing up will never be the same. I may have to retire our machine. My flatmates won’t know what happened.

Fikri: The film involved a fair number of kinky things an ordinary audience probably wouldn’t be into — it really isn’t afraid of pushing boundaries here and right from the start too — but I particularly appreciated that it doesn’t rely on expensive props to flesh out what consensual power play in a relationship might look like, which The Movie That Shall Not Be Named does. Nor does it rely heavily on the infliction of pain, which isn’t a good or bad thing but rather something that I found interesting and might perhaps make it easier for some folks to watch. (Though of course you’d need to be prepared to be uncomfortable to watch this at all.) 

Rushaa: The film works its way into your head, and the power play is certainly central but also incidental at the same time. From the trailer I expected a lot more gimmicky stuff but it was sweet and also sad at parts. Everyone in it was just a human doing their thing, and sometimes mucking up. I think the lack of fancy gear not only put the focus on the characters themselves more but also makes it a bit more relatable to the ways in which many people themselves might experiment in their relationships.

Fikri: Yeah, it dealt with love and relationships in such a nuanced and sensitive way that I’d recommend it just because, not just as “a BDSM film.” Also, because SBK.

Rushaa: Lesbian S&M with Sidse Babett Knudsen! Be still my beating heart.

Fikri: Can we talk about how SBK as a lesbian domme is basically all of my dreams, ever?

Rushaa: I both want to be her, and serve her.

Fikri: That was definitely something I felt watching it too, which was confusing sometimes as someone who only strongly identifies with one side of that dynamic in my own life but I think that really speaks to how good the movie dealt with shifting, complex power play… and in particular how good SBK is at expressing both dominance and vulnerability.

Rushaa: It just reaffirmed everything I felt during Borgen.

Fikri: Right! I know it’s unfair to keep defining an actor by a role they did once, especially because in so many ways Cynthia is not Birgitte, but this whole film was like a lengthy extension of how I felt during that scene when Birgitte swipes everything off her desk and cries. I’d loved her before, but that fully captured my heart. And SBK, just… why is she so good at that?!

Rushaa: IDK, BUT SHE IS AMAZING. And my future wife.

Fikri: Mine too and I believe we have even proposed this.

Rushaa: Could we make her big in queer circles? Invite her to A-Camp?

Fikri: YES I would really like her to be a gay icon, unfort she’s straight as far as I can tell. But it’s at least mildly forgiven because she played a lesbian domme. How many actresses would do that?

Rushaa: I don’t know, I don’t think the film industry has really tried to test the amount of lesbian dommes they can make movies about. At least not in films that can be shown in mainstream cinemas.

Fikri: True.

Rushaa: I was afraid that Cynthia’s character might be quite tropey but Sidse beautifully exceeded my expectations and crafted something heartbreakingly wonderful. I guess we should add that Chiara D’Anna and the rest of the cast were also amazing? It’s just that we have a longstanding love of SBK and she is in killer outfits (and lingerie) for most of this film so obviously we gravitate towards talking about her.

Fikri: Oh yeah, this film has a lot of lingering looks. Everyone was very good at lingering looks. A+ for lingering looks, and also everyone’s boots.

Rushaa: It was wonderfully intense.

Fikri: Other things that were intense: bugs. I’m not sure why reviews and blurbs keep describing Cynthia as a “butterfly professor” because doesn’t she study crickets? I’m also not entirely certain what Cynthia and Evelyn’s professional relationship is, if they have one, but it’s charming that that’s what they have in common. (Tangent: people who are deeply bug-phobic probably shouldn’t watch this, they really are a fairly big part of the film. I mean you know a film’s gonna be good when it starts with credits for “dress and lingerie,” but then it also lists every insect that was featured in the final rolling credits.)

Rushaa: I will admit that I wasn’t 100% certain where they were going with the moth motif.

Fikri: Neither was I. I think independent of what the bugs were supposed to ~mean~ though, even if they were supposed to mean anything, what stood out was the all-women audiences at the bug conferences. (Yeah that’s definitely the technical term for it.) One Guardian review says that the film “reflects one overlooked truth: contrary to stereotype, many great butterfly obsessives have been women.” And by “stereotype” I assume he’s talking about how most of the Bug Keepers in Pokémon were boys.

Rushaa: If I remember my Pokémon all those boys were extremely attached to their bugs as well.

Fikri: Their “bugs.”

Rushaa: *cough cough*

Fikri: ANYWAY. Wanna sum up why you’d recommend The Duke of Burgundy?

Rushaa: Okay. In short I would recommend this film because 1) Sidse Babett Knudsen, 2) there aren’t enough queer lady films anyway, I don’t really know any focusing on power play, and this one is heartbreakingly good. If I am willing to walk around busy Leicester Square during Chinese New Year celebrations in the rain to process my feelings then it is a film everyone has to see.

Fikri: Ha! And I ice-skated to downtown Manhattan during the ice-snow-slush situation we had going on to watch it at midnight. No regrets. (I should mention at this point that when we both learnt of this film’s existence, we booked literally the first viewing of it we could find — rest of our plans be damned.) And why I want others to watch it now: I hate reducing The Duke of Burgundy to these terms, but to me it’s first and foremost a love story, and an exquisitely told one. I came to it expecting an exploration of kinky desire and I got that, but also way more. It was far, far more emotionally intense than I expected (or was prepared for!) but because of that it’s all I’ve been able to think about since watching it.

And yes, SBK is ON POINT.

Next: We process our feelings after watching the film! It is super spoilery, so don’t click through if you haven’t. Again, this discussion contains sexual content that some people may find distressing.

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Fikri has written 62 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. I had the privilege of seeing this film on opening night in Vancouver. It was not what I expected, there is such a sadness in the understory of how the woman dominating her partner feels, you see it and maybe you’ve felt it and you don’t know exactly how to convey those feelings of insecurity so you hide them. I felt such similarity in my own life to both of their situations, it’s such a beautiful film. Go see it if you can.

  2. Oh GADS I cannot wait to see this film. I have spent the last 48 hours since I learned of its existence (from a straight man who hasn’t even seen Borgen: why?) trying to keep myself from running round in circles like a headless chicken with my arms flung towards the heavens. I am SO EXCITED. I mean, obviously my interest was piqued by the premise, but when I worked out it was BIRGITTE? AS A LESBIAN DOMME? I just…. I don’t even understand why life is being so kind to me.

    Anyway, I g2g google-image SBK some more now, bye bye.

      • Also I am incredibly happy that this review is up and people are reading it, because seriously every queer woman should have know about this film from the moment it was put in production. And now we can support it in the cinema and push for the one film sequel I probably won’t have a problem with.

        • YES THEY SHOULD, THEY REALLY SHOULD. The thought of how close I came to not knowing about this during its cinematic run makes me tremble with fear (and also erotic excitement because I’m still thinking about Birgitte). One of us should probs sort out light aircraft hire, print out a load of posters (and/or this article) and carry out some kind of propaganda drop over certain relevant enclaves.

  3. I don’t know if the thought was originally with the filmmakers when they chose the insect motif, but I thought it might be a riff on Foucault’s discussion of the “entomology” of homosexuals, in his “History of Sexuality.” And this film was somehow about a particular “subspecies” of kinky lesbians…

    As someone who has explored both submissive and dominant relationships, I found this film to be one of the more honest depictions of the raw emotional energy you can experience, with all the missteps, love, hurt, anger, confusion, eroticism, vulnerability, and passion acted out in this tiny setting. I found Cynthia’s violation of Evelyn’s safeword to be troubling, but equally troubling (to me) was Evelyn’s emotional abuse of Cynthia, and the underlying lack of honest communication in their dynamic.

    It’s a movie almost certain to stir up strong emotions, and I highly recommend it.

  4. ‘The Duke of Burgundy has an all-women cast but in a “there are no men but it’s still good!!” ‘

    Uhhh what the hell, I think it should always and forever be “there are no men which makes it so good”.

    One of my friends excitedly told me about this movie, so I’ll stick to Page 1 in case I want to see the movie without spoilers.

  5. i feel like this movie is the kind of movie i would have a weird dream about and then in the morning laugh like hahahahah like they’d ever make a movie SO relevant to my interests LOL
    – bdsm
    – lesbians
    – no men
    – may / december romance

    INTO IT

  6. Ugh; why does there need to be a bug theme?! 🙁 I was getting more and more excited reading this article and really wanting to see it because BDSM lesbians! but then I got to the bug part. I’m terrified of them 🙁 bummer.

      • Could you tell me exactly what type of bugs are shown? Im mostly terrified about roaches type of bugs; butterflies are ok. and do they suddenly jump at you in the screen or they’re shown in a less scary way. I’m still considering watching it. I’m really into power play and haven’t heard of a movie featuring it with female characters before. Maybe there are just a couple scenes that I should skip and the rest would be ok?

        • I answered this question below, but in slightly more detail: there are a fair number of close-ups but most of the bugs are dead and in display cases. (Tbh I was more squicked by the pins going through the dead bugs than the bugs themselves, but I’m scared of needles, not bugs.) At one point moths swarm the screen but it’s also at this point that the film is the most abstract/dark, and it won’t be the only reason that you’ll feel creeped out but that’s the point! I think you could totally just close your eyes during a few scenes.

          • ok, thanks a lot. Sounds like the moths are what would creep me out the most. I think Ill just close my eyes when it gets too much and should still be ok to watch rest of film. I can’t find it online though, so let me know if you find a link. 🙂

  7. Not into classical D/s – i mean i could do it with a mortal submissive but my heart isn’t into it, i find Sith Rule of Two with a future equal (my gf is my now-equal) more fulfilling.

    But thank you so much for saying this – i so agree about the fucking babies and accidents. Screw that trend.

    • No to all of those! For most part it’s moths, butterflies and crickets (though you don’t really see the crickets, just hear them) in display cases and shown in detail during bug conference presentations. The creepiest bug scene was this one time they started flooding the screen/SBK’s face with moths because aesthetics, or something.

  8. From SPOILER section:

    I just wanted to address this portion: “Rushaa: … at my screening the two hetero couples on a double date near the back laughed at the safeword violation. The laughter was not nervous. Fikri: What? Ngh. My audience was definitely silent. Rushaa: I like your audience better.”

    a. As you pointed out, a lot of people misheard the safeword “pinastri” as “be nasty,” a statement egging Cynthia on. I was one of those people, and I’m only realizing this after the movie. I’m also kinky, and I, along with many other kinksters, actually explicitly get off on the more blurry, real-feeling kink. Without the realization that she was safewording, I actually found the cake scene pretty unbearably hot. It’s very possible that I smiled a bit in identification with Evelyn’s feelings as I was representing them in my head. I don’t think that you need to read “those hetero couples” as laughing at consent violations. It seems pretty likely that they were in the same position I was, and I think a bit more generosity in your interpretation there is in order.

    b. I’m bi and I saw the movie with my heteroflexible boyfriend. I realize that we’re a heterosexual pairing relative to each other, and that “hetero” in that sense can be simply descriptive, but it feels very dismissive in the context in which it was used. I love my boyfriend, and I would love to be able to go do things with him without constantly running into the implicit assumption that I’m not LGBT (I’m a mysterious “other”) and that consequently the way I think and act can simply be dismissed because “of course I wouldn’t get it.”

    This is a little nit-picky I realize, but it really was a strange and unpleasant experience to be reading an interesting and thoughtful article and then get sort of a personal-feeling emotional stab in the middle of it. But overall, I did really get a lot out of reading the article, and I hope to read more from you guys!

    • Hi! Thank you for the comment on the piece – I’m really glad you generally enjoyed it and I wanted to try and address your points properly since it’s at least partially about elaboration (and my lack there of):

      a) Based on what was written in the review I can see that it seems like I’ve rushed a bit to an instinctive judgement, but I still believe that they were laughing at the consent violations and I can offer you the context as to why I think that. So though I would normally be a bit more generous about my interpretations of others intentions (or at least I would like to believe), this group of four were not only the the people who talk during films about very inane stuff, but they were also quite judgemental at the beginning of the roleplay. That eased off once they got used to it, but as a collective they did seem to take a strong dislike to Evelyn and really relish any scene where she was genuinely uncomfortable. During the cake-making scene they were making comments about “finally, revenge” and “serves her right” (I guess they read it from the beginning like me that Cynthia was being passive-aggressive). The laughter from them came about only after Cynthia says “if only pinastri could make all our troubles stop”, which I reckon a least hints to it being a safeword, and combined with their behaviour throughout the scene and the film in general led me to I assume that it was the callousness they enjoyed.

      b) With regards to your second point, though it wasn’t meant to be dismissive, more descriptive, I agree with you that it certainly comes across that way because they are talked about in a negative light. I also agree that I was definitely making an unfounded assumption that they weren’t LGBT. I’d actually forgotten I’d written “hetero-couples” here, so it’s interesting that you’ve brought my attention to it as over the last few days I’ve been independently considering how I keep labelling what appear to be stereotypical pairings of strangers as “straight” people, helping to contribute to a sort of personal bisexual erasure despite my own sexuality certainly not being monosexual. I can only apologise because I can’t imagine reading something and then suddenly feeling like you’ve been targeted, and it’s something I will keep tabs on in the future.

      Anyway I’m glad you saw and enjoyed the film and thank you again for your points – I genuinely appreciate them because it helps me to be better at writing and just better in general!

      • Ah that makes sense. There definitely are a lot of people who do find consent violation funny, and especially with the extra context I can see reading them that way.

        Anyway, thank you for the nice reply! I think I’m going to have to watch it again knowing that “pinastri” is the safeword. I can see it being alluded to in hindsight, but I think I just really wanted her to be enjoying those things because I found them hot. I think it’ll be a pretty different movie on a second watch!

  9. I finally saw this, and loved it even more than I’d hoped. A properly beautiful looking film (beautiful sounding, too – all those creaking floorboards), brilliantly performed, and which slowly absorbed you into it before revealing its warmth and humour (and then melancholy) by degrees. And it means that I finally got to read page 2 of this! And comment on it!

    HERE BE SPOILERZ:

    This isn’t my world, so this is from a layman’s perspective – but I reckon that’s at least a little valid (I recall Peter Strickland saying that he didn’t really research dom-sub relationships before writing this film, and that he was just writing it from a human-relationships perspective). Alternatively you can laugh heartily at me for how little I understand. But, either way, I have SO MANY THINGS TO SAY!

    I can’t say I reacted quite as strongly to Cynthia’s violation of the safeword as you guys did. For me, it was the first time that Evelyn wasn’t fully in control and literally scripting their entire relationship, which had left zero space for them to just… be human people together, with (Cynthia’s) human needs for affection and (Cynthia’s) human feelz (and human pyjamas). I didn’t read it as much of an abuse of power because Cynthia really never had any; I read it as Cynthia taking the power away from Evelyn for the first time, to put them on the same level; each feeling heartache and hurt and dissatisfaction, needs unmet. Until then, Evelyn had escaped feeling any of that. Cynthia finally made her lie there and feel it, like we all eventually have to when our relationships are operating on the wrong plane. Cynthia was dismantling that dynamic to put them on the same page together, even though it may have appeared as something else (and something worse) because of what was actually happening in that scene. And yeah, it was a shitty passive-aggressive thing to do, but sometimes people do those things too.

    I understand how it can be problematic that ignoring a safeword wasn’t addressed as being a major no-no, but… I just feel like this wasn’t as violating (in the actual context of the scene) as it might be in theory since Cynthia didn’t have any of the power in the first place? Feel free to educate me otherwise.

    (I also think there might be something in it that he just wasn’t talking down to his audience, maybe? Like, not everything needs to be explicitly stated as being Right or Wrong (with Good or Bad consequences), because the audience kind of know it for themselves.)

    ALSO ALSO! I disagree a bit with your take on the carpenter and the breach of privacy. I thought the entire middle act of the film was this brilliant comic absurdism (beginning with the mannequins in the lecture theatre), and I think part of the laugh there was that there was no way in hell she’d actually tell them who ordered the bed if this weren’t a parallel Peter Strickland universe. The same way there’s no way in hell a row of seats would be taken up by be-wigged, be-cardiganed mannequins. (And – fat kid here – I didn’t think the fat joke was played for cheap laughs; it was a kind of sweet, humanising moment in the first (and only) proper interaction we saw them have with anybody else. It was just a slightly naughty giggle they were sharing, no? I dunno, I’m usually happy to be offended by fat jokes, but I was giggling along with the characters here, and also be-stilling my heart at SBK’s nose-wrinkled laughter, d’awww. Also, HOW GOOD WAS SHE!)

    All up, I loved this film, thought it was a beautiful, intelligent bit of filmmaking, and rate it five human toilets out of five.

    (Nice article, too.)

  10. Actually, as someone who is into kink (and bugs! yay!) I was really disappointed and frequently horrified by this movie. Evelyn’s emotional abuse to Cynthia and her overall selfishness, disregard for Cynthia’s comfort & consent, and emotional manipulation (the whole “I cheated on you because you weren’t doing a good enough job being a domme” thing was terrible). Every time Cynthia shows her own vulnerabilities, whether that’s the emotional vulnerability (“I love you” or “can you breathe in the trunk?”) or the physical vulnerability of being visibly in pain and temporarily disabled after hurting her back, Evelyn reacts with scorn. In one particularly upsetting scene, Evelyn refuses to rub Cynthia’s back because she isn’t wearing a sexy outfit–outfits that Cynthia has said are uncomfortable for her and difficult to get into even when she’s feeling well.

    Many people here have commented on the scene when Evelyn’s safeword is ignored. The lack of follow-up to this scene makes it unclear whether it was an intense moment of Cynthia getting into the role or a horrifying violation of boundaries. Because of that lack of follow-up, along with their dysfunctional relationship outside of kink at that point, I see little reason to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s also worth noting that my partner and I saw this film on a college campus, with a brief discussion about BDSM and safety done by the campus sex education org beforehand. This discussion really only focused on safewords as consent in kink (NOT enough), and then to have that followed by a film that diminishes and then ignores safewords (Evelyn’s urgent use of the safeword for just a mosquito bite, followed by the cake scene) was really misleading. There were a lot of people who either weren’t kinksters or very new to it in that audience, and I think that combination of “safewords are your only tool, now let’s watch this great example of a healhty bdsm relationship in a movie!” with “oh wait this is actually super unhealthy and abusive and the safeword gets ignored but that’s okay somehow” was really toxic.

    It’s also worth noting that kink is ultimately shown in the film to be a problem for their relationship, and the movie ends with them severely backing off of the kink. They do imply that they continue with the occasional scene, but since we don’t see how this is negotiated differently from previous scenes (is Cynthia actually okay with it now? does Evelyn stop being a demanding and self-centered abuser?) it becomes less “this is what didn’t work and this is what does” and more “kink will ruin everything if you take it too far! Keep in reined in, folks!” which ultimately isn’t a very useful message.

    I’m disappointed this movie is being held up as an example of a good representation of kink. While aesthetically pleasing, Evelyn and Cynthia’s relationship is deeply unhealthy and abusive. I’m also seeing a lot of claims that it’s a lesbian Secretary, which in the context of this breakdown of Secretary and it’s problems, I would be more inclined to agree with.

    Holding this up as anything other than a slight improvement over 50 Shades in terms of consent and healthy relationships is deeply misleading and ultimately hurtful to the BDSM community. I sincerely hope that more movies come out that do portray sexy, healthy kink so we actually do have examples to point to when we say “now THAT’S kink done well!” in film. I don’t think we have that yet.

    • I watched this movie because of this article and it was nothing like how it was sold to us. This is NOT the lesbian secretary, this is not a better representation of BDSM than 50 shades, I am sorry. In secretary we see how the sub fights for her pleasure, the guilt of the dom, the struggle with his conscience and how it all ends in a very happy and healthy place for both of them. This movie is not about BDSM, it is **PLEASE DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS** about a dysfunctional abusive relationship. It shows that the sub litteraly uses her partner as an object to give her pleasure and nothing more. On the other hand Cynthia (the domme) seems to be sufficating in her role, doing it only to please her girlfriend and getting zero pleasure from it. If she did enjoy it in the past, it is not shown. Cynthia endures and endures until she bursts out and violates a safeword, which is what usually happens when we do not externalize our problems in a relationship. We burst out. The two ladies were a bad match. Evelyn needed a domme who actually enjoys being a domme and Cynthia needed a more vanilla partner, or a partner who knows when to switch the role off. However, I did not think this was a bad movie. I actually think it’s kind of brilliant because it is honest (and of course beautiful). These one-sided relationships are very common. So, this is a movie about relationships gone wrong, aging, dealing with expectations and reality, not about BDSM.

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