Thirteen Ways of Looking at Duke of Burgundy

I. Look up Jess Franco, because this is an homage to a genre: 1970s softcore girl-on-girl exploitation films in European accents, backed with sweetly strung yé-yé music (harpsichord? concertina? flute?). Hazy double-focus slo-mo, with whispers. Through a crazed convex mirror.

A movie in which what is between her legs—only suggested, never shown—is a magic lantern to her queen moth eyes. A delicious locked trunk.

This isn’t an exploitation movie.

II. A silk secretary blouse: there’s nothing like it. Buy the perfume of this film, which is named in the opening credits.

III. Some plot summaries say that one woman is the maid and one woman is the mistress of the house, but that isn’t so. They are doing an elaborate role-play, with carefully hand-written parameters spelled out beforehand. Some critics may not reveal this in their plot summaries because they think this is the “twist,” but it’s not a twist: this is how all role-plays work: you take on the character and act out the erotic charade, a very grown-up game of make-believe.

IV. One might think, who has the time to do their power exchange this well? With such exquisite accoutrements? But in this film, everyone seems to have time. It’s a film about leisure as much as a film about pleasure or torture. It’s a film about the pleasures and tortures of leisure.

V. In which an academic lecture on moth sounds is also an exquisite form of consensual torture.

In which the psychodrama is nested in a psychodrama nested in a psychodrama, with multiple, telescoping endings. The film ends between her legs, in a nightmare fantasy fairytale sequence in the forest, in a lecture hall draped in brocade curtains, by removing one’s eyelashes and wig, with the tape marking the set.

In which there are absolutely no men. No children. It’s not a separatist nation, simply a place where only women exist.

VI. One fan on IMDB asks, Why butterflies? To which I reply here: John Fowles’ The Collector, about an amateur lepidopterist who kidnaps and keeps a beautiful woman. Or Nabokov and his lifelong passion. Or A.S. Byatt’s Angels & Insects, in which an entomologist falls in with a family of upper class, incestuous eugenicists. Or Animotion’s 1980s one-hit wonder “Obsession,” in which Holly Knight intones like a butterfly, a wild butterfly, I will collect you and capture you. I don’t know why it’s always butterflies that are gently pinned this way to perversion, but it seems to always be butterflies.

VII. How well this film understands fetishists: how specific the needs are, the same story, the same script played out and told over and over again. One can never get enough, and it works every time, like a charm. A literal magic charm—which is also the original meaning of fetish.

VIII. But here’s the thing: no one has seen this film. It made $30,000 at the box office.

IX. Other reviews say that the “twist” is that it turns out that the Dominant, the one in stockings and garters who “punishes” the one in peter pan collars, is in fact doing the bidding of her submissive, who has very specific needs and makes them known. See how the Dom must drink glass after glass of clear water to get ready for their afternoon game?

But this isn’t a twist, either. In BDSM, this kind of Dom is “service topping,” or the sub is “topping from the bottom,” calling all the shots. Or it’s simply seen as a legitimate form of power exchange; doing it well, doing it right, often means that everything must be pre-negotiated. Opinions on this vary. There’s some debate.

X. The sultry blond in black marabou. And how what you do dirty in bed at night does have some repercussions the next day: an afternoon nap in the sun in a white eyelet dress on a white iron bench, exposed.

XI. At every turn: vampires! I mean, lesbians!

XII. How the worst betrayal is when she polishes another woman’s boots, and lets another haughty scientist in an up-do tell her off for a while.

If we could all just say our safewords to end our torments.

The notion that finding someone we love who understands our most deeply-seated and twisted desires is a luxury, not a reasonable request, and that we should be ashamed for wanting it.

How did they nail all these details, these complicated truths?

XIII. I’m thinking of getting this line as a tattoo: As long as I’m used, I remain alive.


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.