The taboo surrounding the dark depths of BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) has been broken, whipped into the forefront of our minds by the inescapable Fifty Shades of Grey frenzy. But can we truly class this as ‘erotic’? Are a few tame sex scenes and the inclusion of whips enough to give it this classification? What does ‘erotic’ mean in culture, and what is its ultimate goal?
At the same time as Sam Taylor-Woods’ Fifty Shades was submitted to our screens, the quieter release of director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy also took place. A beautiful, poignant and subtle film, Strickland’s movie is pure eroticism and was immediately hailed by many as the only film to see this year; it’s “kinky as a coiled rope,” claimed The Hollywood Reporter.
The paradox to an uninitiated audience is that this film features no explicit sex - the mere hint of the main characters Evelyn and Cynthia’s sexual intertwining is enough to fill the screen with a bolt of sexual frisson. Instead, it focuses more on their relationship and how its dominant-submissive nature affects each woman on a psychological level.
Strickland, whose resumé began in 1996 with short film Bubblegum and who came to acclaim with his 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio, believes ‘erotic’ is “difficult to define even when one can gauge the approach of the filmmaker,” as it depends on how receptive the audience is. As he explains, “one viewer’s titillation is another viewer’s boredom, or even outrage.”
When people think of the word, the great majority will turn to nudity, but instead Strickland looks for something “candid and raw in the dialogue and emotions” as his starting point. “It’s difficult to recapture the mystery of the human body when it’s been exposed so much.” Thus, the starting point for the film should be the world it inhabits, and everything else “feeds into what that world needs.”
Mystery surrounds the erotic; hints, suggestions and reveals all serve to add tension; a tension that can be killed by what Strickland describes as “the functionality of hardcore nudity.” In The Duke of Burgundy, with its all-female cast, nudity serves no purpose and for that, the film has more depth.
Rather, Strickland’s erotic is “a never ending quest to define the erotic potential in someone, someone’s action or an object associated with that someone.” The film exists in a separate world, devoid of time, space and gender; a world where all are free to expose a part of their personality, which we in this world more often than not have to keep private to fit with taboo.
The process of creating films seems organic for Strickland. The aim of his films, which are classed as erotic due to their subject matter, is not to turn people on. That may be a side effect when focussing on bringing a taboo subject to light and exploring human desire, but the most valuable goal is “to strive for some inner truth when it comes to human desire.” By delving into the closed-off depths of humanity, eroticism rises as we confront what we may know to be true in us, but have to hide. The unknown is always more appealing than the obvious.
The idea of knowledge plays a part in The Duke of Burgundy, which starts off in the manner of a 70s sexploitation film - stern mistress admonishing the maid and later punishing her - only to be turned on its head by the discovery that these are merely roles. A sexually charged 15 minutes takes a kinkier turn and we enter the truly unknown of a fantastical world that seems to hang in time, yet is also utterly, and desirably, attainable.
‘Erotic’ cannot be defined by its very nature; we are all titillated by a multiplicity of factors and to try and constrict that to a few words or a definition is to take all the eroticism away and shatter the illusion. Erotic culture is not the box-ticking nudity and penetration with a hint of whip that the mainstream has harnessed.
Instead a Strickland-esque exploration of the true nature of human sexuality is about finding a part of ourselves that to this day we are expected to keep deep inside; a secret. To expose too much is a quick fix. The truly erotic is a mere suggestion that we then fill with our own fantasies.
Words: Charlotte Sutherland-Hawes