Fifty Shades of Grey and The Duke of Burgundy offer wildly different visions of S&M. How do film-makers create convincing erotic cinema? Lucy Scholes takes a look.

Many reviewers – our own included – have deemed Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of E L James’ bestselling BDSM bonkbuster Fifty Shades of Grey near unwatchable. Of all the complaints that have been levelled against it, from hammy acting to implausible storylines, perhaps the most compelling is that it gives a false picture of an S&M relationship. That Christian’s predilection for bondage in the bedroom is attributed to the trauma and abuse he suffered as a small child is both reductive and worrying: it suggests that BDSM is an aberration, rather than just one of many possible sexual practises that consenting couples willingly engage in.

“Why do you want to hurt me?” Anastasia asks, apparently unable to get her head around the pleasure/pain dichotomy (even though, I think it’s worth pointing out, she seems to be having a ball in most of the film’s playroom scenes). But this lack of consent is actually much more problematic than the film suggests. As someone who was into the fetish scene for many years explained to me, you simply don’t come across couples like this. The submissive-dominant relationship is built on trust and respect, but more importantly it’s a mutual contract that operates on the principle that it’s giving pleasure to both parties.

The closeness of their release dates has meant that comparisons between Taylor-Johnson’s film and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, a ’70s soft-core Euro porn-inspired tale of lesbian lepidopterists with a penchant for role-play, are inevitable – “the arthouse Fifty Shades of Grey” ran the headline of a piece on the film and its director in the Independent. Where Fifty Shades has disappointed critics and been taken to task for simply not being sexy, the consensus seems to be that The Duke of Burgundy has delivered. Visually they are extremely different projects, but, I would argue, much of The Duke of Burgundy’s success comes not from a more nuanced depiction of the intricacies of the power-play between its lovers, or even a more realistic portrayal of a BDSM relationship – unlike a more gritty take on S&M, such as Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) –  but rather because it takes the examination of sexual fantasy seriously. That is, it explores the very structure of fantasy, and sheds light on the staging and theatrics involved in making a film.

Role-playing

Strickland’s film begins with Evelyn (played by Chiara D’Anna) arriving at a beautiful old house in the countryside ready to begin her work. She appears to be a maid for her slightly older, standoffish and, we soon learn, sadistic mistress Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a pencil-skirted, silk blouse and stiletto-wearing taskmaster who demands the younger girl delicately hand-wash her expensive silk knickers. Evelyn misses a pair; an oversight that results in a punishment that takes place behind the closed door of the bathroom. There is the sound of a strong stream of liquid (not a tap), swiftly followed by choking noises: I’m sure you can put two and two together.

Scenes of similar subjugation follow, but just when we’re beginning to wonder how poor, put-upon Evelyn can bear it, our perception of events is turned on its head as we learn that she’s the one who’s pulling the strings in this relationship – the hand-washing incident just one of a series of scenarios she scripts in advance for her lover to enact. If anyone’s being used, it’s actually Cynthia, trussed up in the expensive corsetry and suspenders Evelyn has bought for her, forced to guzzle glass after glass of water in preparation for the punishments Evelyn will gleefully earn herself in the course of the day. After this, the film is an exploration of Cynthia’s growing antipathy towards the role-play that constitutes their relationship as she struggles to maintain the illusions that without which, Evelyn seems unable to function.|

In many ways, The Duke of Burgundy is best considered as a companion piece to Strickland’s previous film Berberian Sound Studio (2012), the story of an English sound engineer (played by Toby Jones) who creates gory sound effects for an Italian film studio that specialises in the giallo genre – cult horror films of the ’70s made by the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Armando Crispino. Berberian Sound Studio fetishised the process of making a film, but at the same time it also lifted the curtain Wizard of Oz-style to show the artifice behind the illusion. It celebrated and undermined giallo in one fell swoop. We saw the sounds being made, but not the final effect on the screen. But rather than shattering the fiction, all this did was highlight a sort of uncanny eeriness; just as creepy, if not more so, than the bloody scenes Jones’ character was producing the sound for.

Strickland builds on this in The Duke of Burgundy, once again laying bare the production process in order to cast light on a celluloid fantasyscape, revealing the reality behind the effect. We soon realise that what we’ve only been shown half the story, and the fantasy life of the two central characters is a staged scenario within the larger staging of Strickland’s film. It’s what happens behind the scenes, as it were, that’s more interesting. When Cynthia, in a moment of pure rebellion, dons her pyjamas, rejecting her elegant but constricting corsetry in favour of something ‘comfortable’, she doesn’t just destroy Evelyn’s fantasy, she breaches the entire aesthetic of the film. Not only is the lovers’ relationship clearly on thin ice, but the entire picture hovers on the edge of oblivion. For Strickland to show successfully the cracks that are appearing in the relationship, the costume change is essential, but nevertheless, it’s a brave move, especially for a director for whom aesthetic is everything.

‘Every film is a fantasy’

Fantasy, of course, is central to both the relationship between the lovers, but also the entire cinematic process. Indeed, one might describe Strickland’s film as an elaborate and fastidiously fashioned sexual fantasy. In making us privy to Evelyn’s scripts – each one meticulously written out on a piece of card for Cynthia to study prior to the scene commencing – not to mention the repetition of the same scenarios played out over and over again like takes of a film, and drawing attention to the costume element of Cynthia’s wardrobe, the mirroring of the film-making process slowly builds in significance.

The “primary function of phantasy,” argue psychoanalytic theorists Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, is “to be the setting for desire”. Every film is a fantasy – the stage-set for the desire of the characters as well as that of the audience. To think of the cinematic spectator as voyeur has become de rigueur. But Laura Mulvey’s pioneering essay on the gaze Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) offers a more complex analysis of the roles in play. “Among other things,” she explains, “the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire into the performer.” The Duke of Burgundy re-enacts this ambiguity by first offering up the narrative as Cynthia’s fantasy, before revealing that actually it is Evelyn who’s in control. 

Strickland’s film is a piece full of cinematic echoes – from Buñuel’s Belle du Jour (1967), through Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches (1968), Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle (1974), and Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), to name but a few – but in particular it recalls Kubrick’s final, hugely undervalued work Eyes Wide Shut (1999), a film that was decried for not being as sexy as it promised. Where Fifty Shades fails is in the cut-and-dry portrayal of a sexual tastes and relationships. It’s explicit – perhaps not strictly pornographic, but it dwells in the same territory: that of the unerotic, the mechanically sexual. We’ve learnt to embrace the concept of sexuality itself as multi-faceted, rather than something strictly black and white, but for films that explore the subject to be convincing, they need to embrace the same limitless potential.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.