Love Rites: Oneiros, Erotic Ritual, and Metacinema in Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy

What does the spectator mean when he or she makes the statement: “the film is like a dream,” or describes a film as “dreamlike?” The oneiric metaphor -being either the portrayal of dreamscapes on film or the use of the analogy between films and dreams as a means of interpreting films- is as old as the medium.  A definition of oneiros or the oneiric state for the purposes of this essay would be a ‘dreamscape’ or ‘dream state’ experienced under certain conditions, such as sleep, hypnosis, trance, fugue, or the like. When used in describing films, the filmmakers create the dreamscape’ through artificial means. Peter Strickland’s 2014 film The Duke of Burgundy both portrays and deconstructs the notion of oneiros. The first part of this essay draws stylistic comparisons between Burgundy and the works of certain European genre filmmakers from the late 1960s to the middle 1970s -primarily Jess Franco, and to a lesser extent Jean Rollin and Walerian Borowczyk. It discusses how in emulating them, Strickland draws the viewer’s attention to those directors’ use of dreamscape in order to extrapolate the artifice of filmmaking at large. The second part explores the nature of erotic ritual in Burgundy and how Strickland’s portrayal of ritual exploits the oneiric nature of cinematic narrative.

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Poster concept for The Duke of Burgundy by Julian House, 2014.

This essay is not necessarily about homage or emulation, and in so being not an iconography concerned with attributing any ‘meaning’ to the films’ dream imagery, as Strickland has voiced his dislike for symbolism and metaphors. It is merely concerned first with the directorial choices Franco and Strickland made in drawing the viewer’s attention to the artifice onscreen and second with how Strickland uses the extrapolation of artifice to deconstruct erotic ritual cinematically. A suitable methodological template for exploring the notion of oneiros and artifice lies somewhere between the first volume of Jean Mitry’s Esthétique et psychologie du cinéma, which describes the relationship between the oneiric and the filmic, stating that the filmic image is “…the image of an absent reality, a past reality of which it is merely an image,” and Christian Metz’s Le significant imaginaire, which acknowledges films as invariably artificial (“What is characteristic of the cinema is not the imaginary that it may happen to represent, but the imaginary that it is from the start…”) but also addresses the relationship between the oneiric and the filmic ( “…the spectator almost always knows that she or he is watching a film, while the dreamer almost never knows that she or he is dreaming”).

As it progresses, Burgundy draws numerous parallels between the actions onscreen and the act of filmmaking itself. In doing so, it portrays characters repeating erotic rituals. Clifford Geertz’s 1965 essay “Religion as a Cultural System,” which attempts to explain the systems from which rituals emerge, describes religious practice as “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” One should note that ‘religion’ according to Geertz is not contingent on a belief in a god or an afterlife. A ‘religion’ is rather a framework or template used by a group of people to guide behavior, which is apropos for interpreting the rituals shared by Burgundy’s protagonists. Dionys Mascolo’s 1976 essay “Birth of Tragedy” discusses the divide between the oneiric nature of cinema when paired against reality, and how cinephilia is contingent on repetition: for Mascolo, watching a film is a ritual typically devoid of surprises to be repeated indefinitely in the expectation of a surprise: “This is the most common experience: some incredibly lazy film contains a sublime sequence. These flashes of genius shine only as the reward for those with courage enough to plunge into the empty hell of what’s been seen a thousand times before.” Both Geertz and Mascolo allude to a ‘world’ forged out of an essentially semiotic system and guiding the behavior of participants in that world.

One can apply the ideas put forth in Mitry, Metz, Geertz, and Mascolo, then, heuristically to Strickland’s intentions in making The Duke of Burgundy, viewing its depiction of dreamscape, ritual, and repetition not as metaphorical but ultimately as a dissection of narrative itself. In short, the spectator knows logically that what is happening onscreen is artifice (actors, sets, costumes, and so on) but allows him- or herself to ‘believe’ what is happening onscreen. This is similar to what Andre Bazin means when he says “If the film is to fulfill itself aesthetically we need to believe in the reality of what is happening while knowing it to be tricked.” However, when the film makes no effort to ‘hide’ its own mechanics, when it is obliged to extrapolate its own artifice -be it in the form of oneiros, repetition, or metacinema- what happens then?

Oneiros and Emulation 

Contemporary film writing cites numerous sources of stylistic influence on Burgundy. A survey of this writing reveals, however, ‘false cognates’ pertaining to where the film’s appearance originates -either by naming stylistic sources without explaining how they are sources or by placing another director’s oeuvre in relation to Strickland’s in a propositional statement of some kind. The portion of this essay devoted to stylistic comparison aims to explain how the work of certain directors served as sources to Strickland, since the overall appearance of Burgundy and its precedents -the production design, costumes, and cinematography- bears greatly on the theme of oneiros. If one limits one’s formal analysis strictly to noticeable influence (that is, imitation on the part of Strickland’s film of another film), one finds Burgundy’s stylistic origins in the films of Franco, Rollin, and Borowczyk.

A major narrative arc of Franco’s films from the early 1970s is the portrayal of romantic and sexual relations between women, as seen in Franco’s Succubus of 1968, Les cauchemars naissent la nuit of 1970, Vampyros lesbos of 1971, Lorna the Exorcist of 1974, and Les nuits brûlantes de Linda of 1975. Franco often portrays the relationship as a conflict between two characters -one in a dominant role and one in a submissive role- using elements of BDSM as a narrative device. It’s necessary to define the terms of BDSM in order to properly address what takes place in the films. The terms ‘bondage and discipline,’ or B&D, and sadomasochism, or S&M, exist on a figurative venn diagram, the overlap between the two being D&S, which stands for ‘dominant and submissive.’ While B&D and S&M can describe the content of a dynamic between its participants, D&S can define the roles played by the participants. The partner in the dominant role typically issues commands to be followed by the partner in the submissive role, and a narrative -usually involving the submissive’s disobedience and the dominant’s punishment- often develops out of the roleplay. Franco’s films often feature two females engaged in such a dynamic.

He perhaps best establishes the dominant-submissive dynamic in Les cauchemars. In a scene set in a Zagreb nightclub where Anna (Diana Lorys) first meets Cynthia (Colette Giacobine), the film cuts between shots of Anna dancing and Cynthia watching her. Anna’s voice is heard in voiceover, describing how Cynthia’s gaze had “dominated” her. It is revealed to the viewer later in the film that Anna is the target of hypnosis by Cynthia. In a later scene depicting a conflict between the two, Cynthia implies that her control over Anna is inevitable, saying: “Don’t you know that I’ll always be here? I’ve dreamed of this moment. I just wanted you to be what you have become. Obedient, just as you are now.” Anna’s response, heard in voiceover, is submissive, describing her desire for punishment for having questioned Cynthia’s dominance: “I started feeling guilty…I had to be punished, brutally tamed. Since then, I think I only exist through her, and by her.”

Lorna the Exorcist by Jess Franco, 1974.
Lorna the Exorcist (Franco, 1974)

A scene late in Lorna features the titular character (Pamela Stanford) declaring her dominance over Linda (Lina Romay). As in Les cauchemars, Franco establishes the dominant’s control over the submissive as fated and inevitable in a scene where Lorna seems to magically appear to Linda, telling her: “You’re my possession, my own.” Whereas the conflict between the protagonists of Les cauchemars emerges out of hypnosis, the conflict in Lorna emerges out of circumstances left ambiguous to the viewer. Lorna is a magician or witch of some kind who enters into a Faustian contract with a businessman, Patrick (Guy Delorme), promising him financial success in exchange for his daughter Linda. With this premise in mind, the scene where Lorna declares her control over Linda takes on a new dimension. Franco’s staging and photography of this scene suggests that Linda enters a trance or dream state. Franco photographs the two in extreme closeup while pulling the camera’s lens in and out of focus. The viewer sees Lorna’s face and hears her speak, however by leaving the lower half of Lorna’s face out of the frame, it is only implied to the viewer that Lorna speaks, suggesting a voice from elsewhere.

The premise of The Duke of Burgundy emerges out of a similar dynamic between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in the dominant role and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) in the submissive role. Somewhere in Eastern Europe, Cynthia and Evelyn live together in a large, opulent country house where they act out various narratives as dominant and submissive, respectively. The most common narrative has to do with housecleaning. In this narrative, Cynthia hires Evelyn to perform various household chores -scrubbing floors, doing laundry, and so on. At a certain point in the narrative, Evelyn makes a mistake -forgetting to wash an article of clothing, neglecting to clean Cynthia’s boots, or the like- and is punished by Cynthia, who leads her into the bathroom and presumably urinates into her mouth. The punishment is one of a number of paraphiliae depicted in the film, known as urophilia -sexual arousal derived from urination, or consuming urine (urophagia) in Evelyn’s case.

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Lorna the Exorcist (Franco, 1974)
The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)
The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

Both Franco and Strickland often portray the dominant-submissive binary visually through a recurring image: that of the dominant figure hovering over or cradling the submissive figure, the most noticeable being one in Les cauchemars where Cynthia hovers above a seated Anna, and another in Lorna where Lorna cradles a supine Linda. Two scenes in Burgundy resemble this image. The first is a wide shot from a montage featuring Evelyn lying supine with her head near the lap of Cynthia, and the second is a scene where Cynthia stands behind a seated, half-asleep Evelyn outside of their house.

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Les cauchemars naissent la nuit (Franco, 1970)
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The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

While the submissive characters in Les cauchemars and Lorna are either hypnotized or bewitched in some way, Burgundy’s characters occupy their roles by choice. Though Strickland uses Franco’s visual language, in establishing the dominant and submissive roles as being ‘performed’ arbitrarily by the characters, he brings the concept of role-play in erotic exchange to the fore. One finds the same extrapolation of the artifice of role-play in the films of Franco as well, though used as plot devices to disorient or surprise the viewer early on in those films: The opening scenes of Succubus and L’éventreur de Notre Dame of 1975 present footage of uncontextualized S&M and eventually reveal it later -both to audiences in the film and to the viewer- as stage performances.

Dreamscape

The opening sequences in Succubus and L’éventreur demonstrate Franco’s use of editing to blur the distinction between dreamscape and reality. The narrative structures of Les cauchemars, Vampyros lesbos, and Les nuits brûlantes blur the distinction as well. In Les cauchemars, Cynthia appears in Anna’s dreams, which Anna describes as “…the silence all around me, softening my steps through this big house…a feeling of living somewhere else in a strange world, at every moment, this feeling of delving into a dream without knowing if I was asleep or still awake.” Using Stoker’s Dracula as its template, Vampyros lesbos follows Linda (Ewa Strömberg) who travels to a remote island where she meets the Countess Carody (Soledad Miranda) in an attempt to secure a land inheritance. Prior to her trip to the island, Linda experiences and recalls recurring dreams of being seduced by a vampire -effectively describing what will happen in the film (“Every night I have this dream. Always the same…”). In the scene where she first meets the Countess, Linda states “It’s strange. I have the feeling I’ve been here before and that I know you.” After having been seduced by the Countess, Linda questions in voiceover: “…is it possible that it was no more than a dream?”

Les nuits brûlantes is perhaps Franco’s most blatant portrayal of the divide between dreamscape and reality in that the narrative never actually takes place. The events in the film are a dream experienced by the protagonist, which Franco makes clear in the first ten minutes. The premise of Les nuits brûlantes has to do with a Parisian woman Marie-France (Alice Arno) accepting a job as a caretaker on an island in Greece. Before departing Paris for the job, she lies on her bed and reads a passage from a novel. The passage is a third-person account of a woman, Jeanne, who has traveled a great distance by train from a large urban center and just arrived at a remote villa. Like Linda’s recollection in Vampyros lesbos, the passage Marie-France reads foreshadows the events in the film. She then becomes drowsy and falls asleep. The viewer sees a close-up of Marie-France’s face that pulls out of focus and cuts to various establishing shots of the Greek island, where Marie-France eventually meets the family residing there: Paul (Paul Muller), his wife Lorna (Monica Swinn), their daughter Linda (Veronica Llimera), their niece Olivia (Lina Romay), and a servant, Abdul (Pierre Taylou). The sequence not only makes it clear to the viewer that what takes place is not ‘real,’ but also informs the viewer of what will happen next.

Further, Les nuits brûlantes contains additional dream sequences that take place within Marie-France’s dream. In the first, Olivia watches her aunt Lorna having sex with a “faceless man.” The film cuts between the image of two figures in bed and that of Olivia’s face, which is seen out of focus. However, Olivia describes the events of the dream in first person, as if she were her aunt. The second sequence cuts between Olivia seen through a thin layer of drapery and her uncle Paul seen standing in a harsh pool of light. The two characters’ dialogue is seemingly unrelated, however the shots are edited together in such a way implying that Paul addresses Olivia as if she were Lorna.

Turntable sans record in Les nuits brûlantes de Linda (Franco, 1975)

This is one of numerous illogical actions taking place in Les nuits brûlantes’ dreamscapes that simultaneously draw the viewer’s attention to their artificiality. Franco demonstrates this artificiality through oneiric images most plainly in the last twenty minutes of the film. In this sequence, Olivia positions a needle on a turntable that contains no spinning record, but in doing so, causes music to play on the film’s soundtrack. Olivia puts on her aunt’s clothes and when Paul enters the room, he addresses Olivia as Lorna. Olivia then inexplicably kills Paul and eventually Abdul without any motive. Finally, a scene midway through the film features an exchange between Olivia and Marie-France that alludes to the oneiric nature of the film. Olivia states “It’s marvelous to live without a sense of time,” to which Marie-France responds: “There’s a strange atmosphere here.”

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Sopran, Hungary in The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

Taking his cue from Franco, Strickland goes to great lengths to extrapolate the artificial and oneiric in Burgundy. His extrapolation is first apparent in the film’s setting. The film could easily take place in any part of the western world and at almost any time. The story could be set in the North America in the 1960s or in Greece during antiquity, and the premise would remain essentially the same. The film’s decision to make the setting ambiguous is conducive to the oneiros the film portrays. The exteriors were filmed outside Budapest and in Sopran, Hungary, though the completed footage implies an anonymous rural landscape somewhere in Europe at an unknown time. The production design suggests the early-to-middle twentieth century, the only electrical devices seen in the film are table lamps and a loudspeaker, and a character mentions a washing machine in passing.

Strickland augments the premise of the same-sex relationship found in Franco’s oeuvre by setting the film in a world populated solely by women. The absence of the male sex renders the portrayal of romantic and sexual exchange between two women moot with regard to definitions of sexual orientation. Burgundy is set in a society where only one sex exists, and by definition cannot be about either heterosexuality or homosexuality. To the viewer who exists in a reality where two sexes exist, what is portrayed registers as a homosexual relationship, however according to the oneiros depicted onscreen, what is portrayed is merely a sexual relationship. The oneiric image in this case allows the viewer to experience at once the dream state provided by the film and plainly see the artifice onscreen. Earlier drafts of the screenplay for Burgundy featured an urban setting and male characters, and portrayed the protagonists as having jobs. Strickland stated that changes were made to avoid readings of the film as being site-specific or portraying sexual politics between genders. The film’s temporal and spacial ambiguities, as well as its elimination of any sexual dynamics that exist in reality between the male and female sex, are intentional, suggesting a dreamscape rather than a plausible setting.

Props

Franco often distinguishes between fantasy and reality through the unique use of film props, specifically mirrors and mannequins. Both props are often used in cinema, ostensibly, to duplicate the human figure while simultaneously drawing attention to the duplication. This duplication serves as a visual signifier of sorts of the duality between the protagonists -the duplicated figure being under the control of its precedent- that is present in so many of Franco’s films. A mirror or other reflective surface is perhaps the most common motif in Franco’s oeuvre, and often factors heavily into his narratives. The premise of Franco’s Al otro lado del espejo of 1973, for instance, rests entirely on a mirror in which a woman sees images of her deceased father.

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Linda reflected in a convex mirror in Vampyros lesbos (Franco, 1971)

In Vampyros lesbos, Franco uses reflective surfaces to portray Linda’s arrival at the island as her entrance into a dream state. In the sequence, there are numerous shots of Linda off-camera but still in the frame: her reflection in the window and in a convex mirror. A mirror factors into a sequence early in Succubus, which follows a woman, Lorna (Janine Reynaud) through numerous dreamscapes throughout the film, and similarly to Anna in Les cauchemars, she may be under some kind of hypnotic control of a possessor (Michel Lemoine) who follows and occasionally gives her commands. A scene early in the film features Lorna sauntering in front of a wall-size mirror.

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Mise-en-abyme in Les cauchemars naissent la nuit (Franco, 1970)

Three scenes in Les cauchemars use mirrors as a means of portraying a character’s oneiric state. The first is the scene featuring Anna describing her feelings of guilt and her desire for Cynthia’s punishment, which takes place in a room where the two characters stand between two mirrors hanging on opposite walls, reflecting the characters, and each other, en abyme. The second is that featuring Anna’s voiceover speech regarding her “feeling of living somewhere else in a strange world.” The speech is heard while she stands in front of a wall-size mirror. The third features a hypnotized Anna intent on committing a murder, entering a room armed with a spear and backlit by outdoor light. Her entrance is seen reflected in a mirror. Given the purpose of these scenes, the mirror in each serves as a visual signifier for Anna’s dream state, as one can read Anna’s mirror image as an image of Anna under hypnosis.

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Evelyn and the carpenter reflected in The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

Burgundy uses mirrors to conflate reality and dreamscape in the same manner. Whenever Evelyn becomes sexually excited in the film, mirrors or reflective surfaces are present and contain a reflection of a character opposite her, implying that she has entered a dream state in that by looking at a reflection, she does not see the figure but an impression of the figure, which the viewer might also read as Evelyn’s impression of the figure. The scene depicting the carpenter’s visit, for instance, is viewed from the point of view of Evelyn in this oneiric state. The viewer sees both Evelyn and the carpenter (Fatma Mohamed) reflected on a window pane. The carpenter then measures Evelyn’s shoulders and torso. The carpenter has visited Cynthia and Evelyn on speculation that she will build them a customized bed, yet one should keep in mind that this scene takes place before the carpenter has negotiated any contract to do so. Realistically, it does not make sense that the carpenter would begin doing any work before drawing up a contract. However, seen from the point of view of Evelyn -being the oneiric state the scene provides- the carpenter’s actions exist sensibly as part of a dreamscape -that is, Evelyn sees in the carpenter’s visit her anticipation or excitement over the possibility of acquiring the customized bed. Also relevant to the scene is that even though Evelyn and the carpenter have never met before, there is no dialogue shared between the characters, only an exchange of suggestive looks.

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Countess Carody and a ‘mannequin’ in Vampyros lesbos (Franco, 1971)
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Mannequin groping in Succubus (Franco, 1968)

Three scenes in Vampyros lesbos conflate both the appearance and function of mannequins with those of human actors. Two feature a cabaret performance between the Countess and another woman (Beni Cardoso) who performs mime as a mannequin whose limbs the Countess manipulates. Another scene features the Countess seducing Linda, who remains motionless as the Countess lays her down on the floor. This scene is intercut with footage of a scorpion, suggesting that the Countess has somehow paralyzed Linda. In a scene midway through Succubus, Lorna brings a woman, Bella (Nathalie Nort) to her chateau. She shows her a large wardrobe filled with mannequins wearing various costumes. In an effort to seduce her, Lorna lies supine on a bed while the Bella eventually climbs on top of her. Filmed in close-up, Bella is suddenly replaced by a mannequin in a blue wig. Lorna stops her and rises from the bed. The mannequins in the wardrobe then appear to walk toward the woman. Franco never provides the viewer with an explanation for this particular use of mannequins, aside from their use to suggest a dream state or hallucination experienced by Lorna.

Mannequins appear to similar oneiric effect in Burgundy, and Strickland extrapolates the distinction between dreamscape and reality through their use. On two occasions in the film, Cynthia and Evelyn attend lectures at an academic conference of sorts taking place in an opulent auditorium. In both scenes, the viewer can plainly see mannequins seated among audience members. Strickland makes no effort to conceal the fact that mannequins are present. While his use of mannequins in these scenes is in emulation of Franco, it is with them that he draws upon Franco’s filmic vocabulary in order to bring the artifice of such props to the viewer’s attention. The attribution of ‘meaning’ to the mannequins is immaterial. The presence of mannequins at all and the film’s reluctance to hide them or incorporate them seamlessly into the scene requires the viewer to make the distinction between his or her reality and the film’s oneiros.

Rollin and Borowczyk

To a lesser extent than the films of Franco, the fantastique films of Jean Rollin and Walerian Borowczyk inform the appearance of Burgundy. Throughout the 1970s, Rollin and Borowczyk distinguished the imagery in their films by portraying either sexual taboo (bestiality, cannibalism, incest, necrophilia, and so on) or the inherent sexuality in popular myth and folklore pertaining to the undead (ghosts, vampires, zombies, and the like). Rollin and Borowczyk often use visual storytelling to convey these themes, either by explicitly portraying the taboo (a human having sex with a large rodent-like creature in La bête, for instance) or by associating sexual activity with supernatural activity (such as in Le frisson des vampires, wherein a vampire inextricably emerges out of a curtain above a nude woman lying in bed). One can understand taboo, in this sense, in light of ideas put forth in Georges Bataille’s 1957 treatise on the relationship between sexuality and death, L’Erotisme. In it, Bataille argues that the sight of a corpse reminds one of at least two things: One’s discontinuity (which is something like one’s ‘mortality’) and the desire for a feeling of continuity in the form of sexual reproduction, and the event (Bataille refers to it as ‘violence’) that brought about the corpse’s death. Since the “violence which by striking at the dead man dislocates the ordered course of things does not cease to be dangerous once the victim is dead,” burial of the dead provides the living with a means of distancing themselves from violence. Paraphiliae having to do with corpses and human burial often emerge, therefore, as erotic narrative devices.

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Crypt sex in La rose de fer (Rollin, 1973)
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Autonecrophilia in The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

Rollin’s 1973 film La rose de fer uses such a narrative. The film, about two teenagers -‘the girl’ (Françoise Pascal) and ‘the boy’ (Hugues Quester)- who become trapped inside a cemetery while out on a date, features a scene of the two protagonists having sex inside a crypt. A sequence late in Burgundy explores taboo in the manner of Rollin with an erotic narrative between Cynthia and Evelyn. The narrative centers around another paraphilia of Evelyn’s, which the film suggests to be something similar to autonecrophilia: sexual arousal not so much from being in the presence of a corpse but from imagining oneself as a corpse. Each night, Cynthia binds Evelyn’s wrists and encloses her inside a wooden chest as if it were a coffin. In the film’s fantastique sequence, Cynthia opens the chest to find a decomposed body inside. She leaves the house and walks into the woods, and unearths a different chest with Evelyn inside. The viewer then sees Evelyn walking stoically in disheveled hair and pale makeup -not unlike a walking corpse.

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La bête (Borowczyk, 1975)
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The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

Other visual elements in Burgundy -namely the production design and wardrobe- find their precedent partly in the films of Walerian Borowczyk. The wardrobe worn by Cynthia, Evelyn, and the Carpenter bear a strong resemblance to those worn by characters in Borowczyk’s films, namely Elizabeth Bathory in Contes immoraux of 1974, Virginia in La bête of 1975, and Diana in La marge of 1976.

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Wunderkammer in La collection particulère (Borowczyk, 1973)
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Wunderkammer in The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

The study in Burgundy, comprised of preserved butterflies and other insects, resembles in many ways what is known as a Wunderkammer, or ‘cabinet of curiosities.’ A Wunderkammer is a room meant for displaying novelties and rare objects. Though the portrayal of Wunderkammern and Kunstkabinette are uncommon in cinema, the shots of the study in Burgundy bear a strong resemblance to those in Walerian Borowczyk’s Une collection particulière of 1973, which features a room of erotic novelty items. Strickland photographs the collection in Burgundy in a manner similar to Borowczyk, alternating between wide shot and close-up.

Visual elements such as these suggest a setting that, while not by necessity based in an oneiric state, are certainly not based in visual or temporal reality. The oneiros is intentional. Strickland stated in an interview with Stephen Saito that, for him, the film “…could be in the future when the oil runs out. They’re using bicycles to go everywhere. It could be any time from 1950 onwards. I wanted it to be like a fable and a lot of the fables I used to read as a kid, they never really had a place. It’s always about immersing yourself in the story. Erase that idea of place, of time, the male gender and jobs. It is preposterous. How the hell could you afford that kind of house? They don’t do anything. The insects are their hobby and it’s not even their job. They just lounge around all day having sex. It is absurd, but hopefully so absurd you just accept it and focus only on their relationship.”

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L’année dernière à Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)
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The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

Finally, in a scene late in the film, Strickland imitates the opening dolly shot from Alain Resnais’ 1961 film L’année dernière à Marienbad, pointing the camera toward the ceilings of the auditorium’s corridors, filming chandeliers in wide angle.  In doing so, he foreshadows Burgundy’s eventual deconstruction of narrative in the manner of the nouveau roman and other postmodernist legacies, as will be discussed in the next portion of this essay.

Repetition, Erotic Ritual, Metacinema

Burgundy is a deconstruction in that it is not as much a narrative film as it is a film about narrative, and not as much a work of erotica as it is a film about the nature of erotica. Briefly, deconstruction in and of fiction has existed -in different forms and under different names- since antiquity, the Odyssey of Homer being an early canonical example. Likewise, the use of repetition of onscreen action in filmmaking as a means of deconstructing narrative has existed since the advent of the medium, the precedents for Burgundy being postmodern films in Western Europe from the early 1960s through the 1970s, such as Marienbad, Bergman’s Persona, Rivette’s Celine et Julie vont en bateau, and others. Burgundy distinguishes itself among these deconstructions, however, by conflating the repetitive nature of erotic ritual with that of filmmaking -with the filmmaker and spectator in the dominant and submissive roles, respectively.

Solve the following math problem: A train carries twelve passengers. At the first station, two people get off and five people get on. At the next station, four people get off and twenty-three people get on. At the next station, eleven people get off and nine people get on. At the next, four people get off and twelve people get on. At the next, thirteen get off and seven get on. At the next, one gets off and twenty four get on. At the next, three get off and zero get on.

How many stops did the train make? While reading the previous paragraph your mind was focused on counting the number of passengers on the train, but not on the number of stops. The train is analogous to oneiros, or the oneiric state. In performing a ritual, the performer is focused on the tasks involved in the ritual. The number of times the ritual itself is repeated is irrelevant.

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Preparing for roles in The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

Burgundy is a non-narrative film in that the viewer sees a repetition of acts that seem to have no beginning, middle, or end. The role-play sessions carried out by Cynthia and Evelyn are not unlike the repeated ‘takes’ used in shooting a film: Evelyn gives Cynthia cues and directions, implying in her statements that there will always be additional sessions (“Try saying it with more conviction next time,” “It would be nice if you did it without being asked,” and so on). The viewer sees Cynthia and Evelyn’s ‘housecleaning’ narrative performed multiple times, each session nearly identical, with some improvisations and ‘tripping over lines.’ Further, the viewer sees Cynthia and Evelyn preparing for and rehearsing their roles. Cynthia puts on wigs, applies makeup, and paces back and forth in order to prepare herself physically and mentally for performance of the ritual.

Through the portrayal of repeated ritual, Burgundy gradually reveals itself as metacinema. One could define it as such in that Strickland makes several elements that occur in metafiction plain to see in the film: he portrays other ‘fictional’ works inside the film’s own narrative, he portrays his characters grappling with aspects of roleplay and the dominant-submissive dynamic, and he draws the viewer’s attention to the fact that he himself is making a film. The film allows the viewer to deconstruct the ritual of roleplay, and in doing so deconstruct the ritual of filmmaking itself. The experience is not unlike what Bazin describes in his recollection of a screening of Louis Feuillade’s Les vampires at the Cinémathèque Francaise where one of the two projectors failed and the lights came on every ten minutes in order to change reels: “Seen under these conditions, Feuillade’s chef d’oeuvre reveals the aesthetic principle that lies behind its charm. Every interruption evoked an ‘ah’ of disappointment and every fresh start a sigh of hope for a solution. This story, the meaning of which was a complete mystery to the audience, held its attention and carried it along purely and simply by the tension created in its telling.”

Cynthia and Evelyn develop at least two fictional narratives that exist solely inside Burgundy’s narrative. Early in the film, the two discuss how despite pragmatic adherence to repetition of the ritual, they might make the narrative seem spontaneous. She insists on Cynthia initiating the ritual “within twenty-four hours” after being asked, “but not in the first hour, because I won’t be surprised, and not in the last hour, because it’s no longer a surprise.” Cynthia responds, wryly: “So, within twenty-two hours, then.” For Evelyn, part of the ritual’s effect is the element of surprise, yet each time they perform the ritual there are no surprises -the ritual ends the same way. This is not dissimilar to actors oscillating between the strict recitation of lines and improvisation over the course of multiple takes. Despite improvising portions of a scene, the scene typically ends according to the requirements of the script.

Strickland conflates Cynthia and Evelyn’s roleplay with the performances by Knudsen and D’Anna. The conflation between Cynthia and Evelyn’s roleplay and Strickland’s filmmaking is apparent in a scene late in the film, after Cynthia has bound Evelyn and locked her inside a chest. Deprived of her other senses, Evelyn can only hear Cynthia’s footsteps, which Cynthia accentuates by walking back and forth near the chest. One particular shot reveals a roll of tape laid out on the bedroom floor. The tape in this scene is there for Cynthia to ‘hit her marks’ while walking back and forth. Tape is used in the same way in film and television production as a device for actors to stay in the frame. One can interpret the roll of tape as being there either to assist Cynthia in the role of dominant, or assist Knudsen in the role of Cynthia.

burgundy cake
Conflation in The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

Like the character of Gilderoy in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, Evelyn conflates reality with fiction. A scene that demonstrates this is that where Cynthia makes Evelyn bake her own birthday cake, serve it to her, and lie down at Cynthia’s feet while she eats. When Evelyn says the safe word, ‘pinastri,’ Cynthia doesn’t respond. The punishment delivered to Evelyn is genuine even though she had been under the impression that the two where roleplaying. However at this point in the film, the viewer is aware of Burgundy as a metafilm: Though it is made clear to the viewer that Cynthia and Evelyn are no longer engaged in role-play in the scene, the viewer has been provoked to the point of awareness that the film as a whole is artificial.

To return to Bazin’s comment on the divide between reality and the oneiric state: “If the film is to fulfill itself aesthetically we need to believe in the reality of what is happening while knowing it to be tricked.” Cynthia and Evelyn know logically that they are reciting lines and carrying a narrative through to its conclusion, yet the oneiric state provides them with an illusion of another world. They both know logically how the narrative begins and ends, yet the oneiric state allows them to believe that the action is spontaneous. This is no different from the oneiros of the act of either making or viewing a film, which one could read in multiple ways: Cynthia and Evelyn stand in respectively for the dominant filmmaker and submissive film viewer, or Burgundy itself and the viewer occupy dominant and submissive roles, figuratively.  The viewer knows logically that what he or she is watching is artificial: actors in costumes, artificial set design, various photographic effects, and so on- but still desires oneiros to occur and therefore allows it to occur. The artifice in Burgundy at once satisfies and dissects this desire.

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2 thoughts on “Love Rites: Oneiros, Erotic Ritual, and Metacinema in Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy”

  1. Pingback: Films in 2015 |

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