ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 13, Number 2 (July 2016)
Author: Monika Lemke

Peter Strickland’s erotic art film The Duke of Burgundy (2015) premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), after being rejected at both the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals for its provocative sexual content (Marsh, 2014: B2). The film, set around the frustrations of a sadomasochistic roleplaying couple, pays homage to 1970s Euro-erotica by emphasizing the genre’s underlying thematic complexity – its fascination with sexuality, performance, artifice and costume. The film advances as a meditation on roleplay, presenting an initial scene in a discursive “replay” where both the submissive and the dominant act their roles seamlessly over and over again. As the viewer’s familiarity with the relationship develops through the course of the film, however, the self-consciousness of the fantasy, the repetitiousness of the courtship develops the bathos intrinsic to fantasy they enact. Thus, the film calls the viewer to engage both in the eroticism of the relationship and with what lies behind the erotic product.

Yet, Strickland adds another level to engage with the viewer’s reception of the film’s erotic content: the use of the title credits to invoke the notion that the actors, or the film itself, are perfumed. Unlike a standard title credit sequence, the opening 1970s-style credits cites fictional information, production details such as “Dress and Lingerie by Andrea Flesch” and “Perfume by Je Suis Gizella”. The second credit, the primary subject of this paper, is more than a wink in the direction of the film responsible for the original filmic perfume credit, Paris When It Sizzles (1964), which starred the Givenchy-scented Audrey Hepburn. Rather, by lending a perfume credit for a fragrance and a perfumer that do not exist, the credit in The Duke of Burgundy calls to a meta-context between the film and the viewing experience. Beyond the film’s fantasy world, the credits acknowledge the viewing audience and a cultural context that is responsible for the consumption of the erotic content of the film. By implicating the viewer through this meta-content, Strickland’s film explores the immense pleasure and dread Baudrillard identifies of the fashion system. I propose that the self-conscious play of signification invested in the perfume is presented for its own sake to give pleasure to their viewer in its emptiness, echoing “the death of solidity” that follows from the circulation of destabilized and endlessly mobile signs required by the fashion system, as theorized by Jean Baudrillard. The “simulated” aspect in The Duke of Burgundy not only belongs to the psychosexual roleplay between Cynthia and Evelyn, but to the viewer who consumes the film, implicating them also as part of the “never-ending cadrille of disappearances and reappearances” (Bauman, 2002: 35) of the fashion system. Employing Baudrillard’s framework, my analysis of the film implicates the consumer and the fashion system as co-dependents in the continued reproduction of its fantasy paradox. I use the critical reception of the film, primarily its credit sequence to situate the film’s erotic content as a further meditation on the crucial relationship that the fashion system has within a network of desire.

The critical reception of The Duke of Burgundy identifies “the fashionable” elements of the film, mirroring Baudrillard’s comment that the fashion system’s interest in providing for the continuous dissemination of signs. The Duke of Burgundy is situated in the fashion system itself, in its game of nostalgia and renewal. It is an arthouse film, which, like fashion, strives towards achieving novelty, all the while exploiting the existing network of significations that makes such novelty possible. “Fashion is only a simulation of the innocence of becoming; the cycle of appearances is just its recycling (Baudrillard, 1992:89). Baudrillard describes fashion’s paradox of production as at once part of actuality, concerned with its ‘up-to-dateness’, its ‘relevance’, as well as its inactuality, its opposite ‘out-of-dateness’, due to its interest in animating dead forms such that they haunt the present (Ibid.: 88). In the fashion context, the cyclical (re)production of signs compels meaning to become liquidated from the object by virtue of the system’s functioning. Accordingly, Baudrillard believes that the fashion system, then, becomes concerned only toward “signs without referents, empty, senseless, absurd and elliptical signs, absorb us… [and the connoisseur’s] mind is irresistibly attracted to a place devoid of meaning” (Baudrillard, 1990: 74-5) because modernity is engaged in the practice of overcoming “exclusiveness of signs”, the fashion system providing for the “proliferation of signs on demand” (Crary, 1989: 98).

While Baudrillard’s totalizing view might seem to close the door to analysis of the content of film, fashion, or other domains of culture, this position helps situate The Duke of Burgundy within a context that is concerned with its critical reception. Baudrillard’s conception of the fashion system suggests that critics are interested in identifying the film’s signs, applauding novel gestures, and appraising a film for its appeal according to its value as entertainment. Even more so than popular film, arthouse film depends on an elite audience who enjoy the idea that “every image, every media message and also every surrounding functional object is a test”. Baudrillard continues, explaining that a test, like an arthouse film situated within a canon, “triggers response mechanisms in accordance with stereotypes or analytical models. The object today is no longer ‘functional’ in the traditional sense of the term; it doesn’t serve you, it tests you” (1993: 63). This is what the critics are looking for, Baudrillard supposes, a “non-sense that seduces … [by producing] signs without credibility and gestures without referents” (Ibid.: 74–5). If we adopt the Baudrillardian view that suggests that that the film critic’s role is to identify films which will adequately seduce the audience regardless of any meaning that may be gleaned by the audience, we can move past the pursuit of a consensus on meaning, and instead use film critic commentary to reflect on the nature of the culture industry, and the increasing destabilization and mobility of signs in modernity that make up its backdrop (Crary, 1989: 98).

Though film, like other iterations of the fashion system, invites interpretation because it harbours a “radical sociality, not at the level of the psychical exchange of contents, but at the immediate level of the distribution of signs” (Baudrillard, 1993: 93), it operates on the level of a massified culture. In a Baudrillardian formulation, this is tantamount to the division of a social irreality and the underlying real that culture is closed off from. It is to The Duke of Burgundy’s credit that its thematics are sensitive to the artifice inherent in culture, a network of “imitations, copies, and counterfeits” (Crary, 1989: 98). The film operates on the level of systemic reference, such as its homage to Paris When It Sizzles’ original perfume credit, and also on the level of signs and thematics in the film itself. In an example of the latter, when the dominant Evelyn tells her lover “I hate you”, Baudrillard would stress that the gesture is read by the audience (or, interestingly, by her lover Cynthia) through a network of signs. What “I hate you” could mean is not static, but is heavily influenced by context, and as such, its meaning may be lost to arbitrariness. The film’s audience will never know the “real” scent of the film, or the truth of the characters, or the individual motivations of other members of the audience consuming the film for that matter, but Baudrillard suggests that these contexts may not matter. What film critics and the audience are interested in, according Baudrillard, is drawing attention to and celebrating “the age of the emancipated sign” (1993: 51). The “appearance” of the signifier, its spectacle, charged with meaning at the level of cultural consumption, is the site of valorisation (Bauman, 2002: 35).

Given this account of the film critic’s relationship to arthouse film’s “fashion system”, it is unsurprising that the perfume credit in The Duke of Burgundy succeeded in striking the attention of critics. My research sample of the critical reception of The Duke of Burgundy, from the period ranging from its premiere at TIFF and its commercial release in Europe and North America, found that a majority of reviews acknowledged the film credit and a significant portion attempt to comment on its significance. A split between the reviews that declined to research the previous instance of “the perfume credit” in film history1 (Anderson, 2015: WP18; Mears, 2015: 65-66; Pevere, 2015: R1; Rea, 2015: R1; and Scott, 2015: C6) and those that situate The Duke of Burgundy as in league with or referencing the Givenchy opening credit in Paris When It Sizzles indicate that there is some interest in addressing the novelty of the perfume credit.By looking to the latter camp of reviewers, patterns emerged in the treatment of the credits in the various review, namely those that identified the credits as (1) a nostalgic nod to the anachronistic forms and the themes of 1970s Euro-erotica, (2) a humorous and playful gesture, and (3) an element in supplying the erotic and sensual tone of the film. While these categories are not mutually exclusive, they indicate the vastness of interpretation in the postmodern paradigm, and imply the impossibility of arriving at a consensus on a film’s meaning, however appreciative the critics are of the signs and gestures in the film that invite interpretation.

The first of the three groupings of critics appear most interested in identifying the referential quality of the film, highlighting the overwhelming texture of signification present in the film. The opening “perfumed” credit sequence writes Pevere, “evokes the glory years of late 1960s-early ’70s peekaboo Euro-trash (and especially gauzy, soft-core steamers such as Emmanuelle and The Story of O) … an Audrey Hepburn bobbed woman (Chiara D'[Anna]) rides a bicycle along leafy roads toward a stony country estate, the sense of time and place is both displaced and pop-culturally fixed.” (2015: R1) Pevere, like other critics, identify The Duke of Burgundy’s nostalgia for the stylistic and thematic elements of a bygone era of culture. Pevere also suggests that the place of the film, a small enclave of women in the woods, closes it from spatial and temporal location. This non-place communicates, also, a sense of nostalgia embedded in the film’s simulation environment and exploits the fantastical implications of rendering nostalgic places in the present (Bauman, 2002: 40). The spatial and temporal setting illustrates a “designer reality” where mortality, history and “reality” are suspended (Ibid.: 50).

The referential and nostalgic quality of the film allows it to be readily consumed according to a “code”. Baudrillard speculates that “aesthetic reality is no longer achieved through art’s premeditation and distancing but by its elevation to the second degree, to the power of two, by the anticipation and immanence of the code” (Baudrillard, 1993: 75). By launching into an opening sequence that playfully exploits an existing genre and its stylistic precedent, the pleasure of watching this film is established by its “tactical simulation, a consummate aesthetic enjoyment [jouissance] … attached to indefinable play of reading and the rules of the game” (Ibid.). It would be unacceptable to the audience, perhaps, if The Duke of Burgundy indulged in a bland mimesis of the perfume credit in Paris When It Sizzles, found an eminent perfume, an adjacent sponsor, and proceeded with the marketing of an imperceptible but feasibly marketable product. Yet, this is not what happened. Instead, the level of simulacrum, the text on the screen, is the end-product to be consumed and generate pleasure. To appreciate this play in “the blind but brilliant ambience of simulacra” it is necessary for the rules of the game to have already been established, allowing for this delight in the confusion of signs between the marketing context of popular film, erotic tropes, and the postmodern cast of the film itself.

The “eau de wink wink” of the perfume credit, as reviewer David Clarke identifies it, is a manifestation of an intrinsic play-act sociality to the fashion system, both referential and also playful in itself. In Clarke’s interview with Strickland, Strickland states that the sequence: “It’s a joke, but it’s not a joke” (2015: 7). Strickland explains that the joke is purposeful in that it initiates the audience immediately into the world of the film. In doing so, he flattens the referential quality of the joke in favour of a more narrative and storytelling-driven motive and preserves the spontaneity and arbitrariness of “light signs”.2 The intention was not to use the signs of fashion for the pleasure of tethering The Duke of Burgundy to Paris When It Sizzles, which would seem to imply that communication is based on simply a rational, categorical imperative model of identification. Rather, the credit-joke is more deliberately used to suggest the pleasure of the film; to appease “those Greeks [who] were superficial – out of profundity”, the audience (Baudrillard, 1993: 89 [quoting Nietzsche, 1974: 38). The joke, however it is read, is in its many dimensions a source of pleasure derived from its vacant and nonsensical quality.3 In place of the rational linkage between the sign and underlying reality, signifiers that exploit this emptiness become “striking, to the point of enchanting us – the enchantment and vertigo of the loss of every system of reference” (Baudrillard, 1993: 89)). The opening perfume credit is, regardless of prior filmic knowledge or expectation bizarre, and at the moment of its reception at the beginning of the film, nearly inaccessible to interpretation, except as a sign in itself. Peter Bradshaw, in his review quipped that he had attempted to Google the perfume, having assumed it was a real product (2015: 16). Even as I found Bradshaw’s observation particularly relatable, the content of this observation is not be discounted – the assumption that there would be a consumable product at the other end of the Google Search is the fissure between the fantasy of self-contained film and audience that consumes it and reconciles it with the culture/fashion system. The imperceptibility of the scent, the question of whether the actors wore the perfume or whether we as the audience are expected to assume that the characters don the fragrance, provoke questions that are unanswered in the film and ultimately unanswerable. Such an instance abolishes the linearity of the commodity (use-value), radically untethering it from the real, and challenges the viewer to be involved solely in sign-value of the perfume credit, for the sake of the joke (Baudrillard, 1993: 87).

The third approach that critics, namely Nathalie Atkinson (2015: L2), Peter Bradshaw (2015: 16), and Mekado Murphy (2015: AR19), take toward the credit sequence is that of its sensual and erotic tone. According to Murphy, the perfume appears to bring the audience to “the right frame of mind” in order to enjoy the fantasies of the two main characters, namely the submissive Evelyn “whose submission fantasies are specific and precise” (Ibid.). Murphy believes that Strickland’s conceptual strategy as a director means to heighten the engagement the audience has with the couples’ sadomasochism by painting a complete fantasy vision from setting, to “dress and lingerie”, to perfume. When Atkinson asks Strickland what a fictional perfume smells like, Strickland’s reply, “It’s invisible … It’s more like a pheromone and puts people under a spell”, indicates a compatible account (Atkinson, 2015: L2). Given the erotic content of the film, the embodied and chemical language of “pheromone” is provocative, because it occupies an ambiguous position between the contrived (perfume) and the genuine (involuntary, natural scent). The world of the film thrives on the complete simulation of erotic fantasy, both for the viewers and the characters within that world, implying a deeper affinity with the feigned over the genuine, or real.

I make the case that “the perfume that does not exist”, featured in an erotic arthouse film, illustrates Baudrillard’s position that “under the sign of the fashion it is the object-relation that disappears, blown to pieces by a cool and unconstrained sexuality” (Baudrillard, 1993: 88). Evelyn (and Cynthia)’s passion for absolute coherence – even through their profession (entomologists) – amounts to a passion for fashion, a passion which, in competition with sexuality, ultimately overpowers it. Provocatively, Baudrillard argues that:

Fashion is certainly the most efficient neutraliser of sexuality (one never touches a woman in make-up – see ‘The Body, or The Mass Grave of Signs’ below) – precisely because it is a passion which is not complicitous, but in competition with sex (and, as La Bruyere has already noted, fashion is victorious over sex). Therefore the passion for fashion, in all its ambiguity, will come to play on the body confused with sex (1993: 96).

Baudrillard proposes that the fashion system disenchants the body such that bodies become neutered mannequins. Due to a lack of difference, everything is sexualized. (Ibid.: 97) Therefore, we might understand that the simulacra-perfume acts as a natural, simulated, pervasive and imperceptible pheromone upon the audience, implicating them into the world of Evelyn and Cynthia. It exposes that characters not only cultivate an immersive fantasy in their solitude and out-of-dateness, but also because they “fashion” their very bodies as such that the pleasure of the fantasy overtakes the sexual pleasure of their engagement with one another. Their own bodily scent is no longer, but replaced by a perfume. On another level, the perfume may be understood as both a critique of the couple’s fashion-play eroticism and of the audience’s complicity in the total fashion mirage that they consume for pleasure, which ultimately erases their bodies.

The previous attempt to situate scent within Baudrillard’s theory, Zygmunt Bauman’s article entitled “The sweet smell of decomposition” (2002), addresses the relationship between the real and artificial using reference to perfume. Bauman presents simulation as the image of a Cheshire cat-like woman, whose perfume lingers though her physical presence does not (29) – no more than in film does this sort of woman exist. The completeness of the erotic fantasy world in The Duke of Burgundy aligns with Bauman’s reading of Baudrillard, as he traces a connection between the survival of the sign, “the inertia of absurd, enchanting, elliptical signs”, with the end of death in modernity (36). Bauman’s claim follows that, just as the characters in The Duke of Burgundy are doomed to repeat their erotic roleplay as immortals throughout eternity by a closed circle of mutual signification, the viewer is enchanted and eclipsed by its deftness, and through the fashion system, compelled to engage a similar agony (35).

What Bauman explains when he introduces the Cheshire cat woman is that she only disturbs if the rest of the landscape is assumed to be “real”, striking at the fallacious divide between the “real” world and the (filmic) mirage simulacra in Baudrillard’s framework. The conclusion that Bauman finds in the case of smell is that it serves to illustrate the insidious terms of survival that simulacra implies (44). Bauman, however, by tackling Baudrillard’s thought beyond the fashion system, renders a conclusion to Baudrillard’s thought as closed to any emancipatory potential because of its totalizing attitude. Here, I claim that Bauman’s intervention illuminates that the theory may yet have a context the fashion system. Rather than treating Baudrillard as interested in the entirety of modern life, the fashion system may be treated as a meditation on consumerism, “media, advertising, information and communication (what Marx called the unessential sectors of capitalism)”, rending a very specific moment in the history of the commodity (Crary, 1989: 99). The Duke of Burgundy is implicated in a history of the consumer in a way Bauman’s Cheshire cat woman is not because the film depends on a relationship between the viewer and the fantasy within a consumerist network of desire and, embedded in it, the history, consumer context and media implicated in that moment.

By applying Baudrillard’s fashion system to the specific instance of the perfume credit in The Duke of Burgundy, the network of consumer culture that has allowed for the reproduction of the fashion system is emphasized. The erotic, parodic, and referential content of the film are tethered together by the fashion consumer. Baudrillard’s writing on the fashion system presents the network of circulation and the consumer’s desire as coeval forces that have spiralled together at an intense rate, creating a market to conceive and contain its phantasm simulacra.

Paying tribute to it, he [the consumer] finds salvation in fashion [faire son salut dans la mode]. A passion for collecting, passion for signs, passion for the cycle (the collection is also a cycle); one line of fashion put into circulation and distributed at dizzying speeds across the entire social body, sealing its integration and taking in all identifications (as the line in collection unifies the subject in one and the same infinitely repeated cyclic process) (Baudrillard, 1993: 93).

While leaving the possible content of “signs” open, Baudrillard’s account provides insight as to why it would be the case that critics and viewers would be so enchanted by the nonsensical jokes, absurdity, empty eroticism, falsities, and bald, referential fare in The Duke of Burgundy and how these signs and themes are attributable to the fashion system’s functioning. Its network implies a form of pleasure derived from the simulation’s sign-value, not because of a failure on the part of a complicit and vacuous subject, but because of the spectacle of this particular commodity cycle that is replenished by its code of signs as well as the consumer culture implied of the medium itself. The Duke of Burgundy exploits this game of signs and pleasure, as a meditation on the erotic, asexuality of fashion signification, but most novelly as a commentary upon the permeable boundaries between the fashion system and consumer context. The bizarre “perfume that does exist” demonstrates the sensuality and pleasure of an idea or sign in the fashion context, if the sign’s logic plays towards the existing significations present in fashion’s code.

About the Author
Monika Lemke holds an MA in Legal Studies from Carleton University and a MA in English from Ryerson University. Her Masters thesis From Putrescence to Post-Mortem: Aesthetic Transformations in Victorian Burial Reform, focuses on the linkage between shifting Victorian aesthetic sensibilities towards metropolitan space and the body, and the development of medico-legal knowledge around corpses. She is an independent researcher currently interested in scent, fashion, and superstition.

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Bradshaw, Peter. “G2: Film & Music: Reviews: Film: Sex, Lies and Butterflies: British Arthouse Maverick Peter Strickland Brings Extravagant Artifice and Intoxicating Atmosphere to this Story of Two Women in a BDSM Relationship: The Duke of Burgundy 4/5.” The Guardian (February 20, 2015: 16).

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1 – In the former, abstaining camp, Geoff Pevere, Steven Rae, and Andrew Scotttreat the fictional perfumers as a fact, and Jason Anderson and Steven Mears treat the credit as an aesthetic choice. For Mears, the opening and closing credits (“listing of all featured insects at the end (under common and scientific names)”) are complimentary elements, which together show that “the film takes care to undercut what may be perceived as self-consciousness” (Mears, 2015: 65-66). Anderson, on the other hand, notes that the credits are “citations for the production’s special purveyors of perfume and lingerie,” appearing to admire the erotica-connoisseurship implied in these credits, contrasting The Duke of Burgundy with the recent erotic blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey (Anderson, 2015: WP18).

2 – “This applies to fashion as regards clothes, the body and objects – the sphere of ‘light’ signs. In the sphere of ‘heavy’ signs – politics, morals, economics, science, culture, sexuality the principle of commutation nowhere plays with the same abandon” (Baudrillard, 1993: 87).

3 – A reviewer, Kate Muir, probed Strickland during an interview on the subject of the perfume’s “seriousness.” “I considered John Waters-style ‘scratch and sniff’ perfume cards for the cinema, but it’s a bit expensive,” says Strickland, who manages to be hilariously half-serious about it all” (50).