Suspenseful encounters of the masochistic kind

Darius Lerup
July 14, 2015
‘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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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

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, 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.


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.


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.



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.



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.

All by
Darius Lerup