Rooted in the plot-flouting sentiments of the 20th century avant-garde, “The Duke of Burgundy” sets out to create an intense sensory experience. Like another recent film, Alain Guiraudie’s all-gay-male “Stranger by the Lake,” the all-female “Duke” is a tender love story trapped in an arthouse horror movie, an elegant study of the psychological and physical debasement that accompanies desire, warts and all.
Brit director Peter Strickland’s third film after “Katalin Varga” and “Berberian Sound Studio” takes the relationship between middle-aged butterfly expert Cynthia (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her younger, more servile and punishment-seeking companion Evelyn (the wide-eyed Chiara D’Anna) to extremes. We’re confined to a gothic lair that exists somewhere outside of time. Beveled mirrors, lavishly displayed butterfly specimens and baroque architecture adorn its walls and between them, the lovers engage in kinky games and bizarre sexual behavior. A harpsichord-heavy soundtrack by Cat’s Eyes lends an air of classical decorum to this tawdry affair.
Repeatedly rejected by Cannes and Berlin, Strickland’s artful body of work overflows with homage and a palpable excitement about cinema’s deepest, most derided obscurities. But the director, as I learned during our AFI Fest interview in Los Angeles last November, knows his stuff. After our conversation, he left me with a lot of homework, from listening to forgotten industrial music to looking up experimental short films of the 1980s.
He’s worried about being pegged as such a referential filmmaker. Reviews of his love-it-or-leave-it sophomore feature “Berberian,” a moody psychological throwback about a sound designer who loses his head while working on an Italian giallo film, fancied Strickland a “Lynchian”—a handy appellation that in modern cinematic parlance has come to be synonymous with, as Strickland calls it, “weirdness,” or anything that resists a linear narrative. As the anxiety of influence creeps upon him, the director wants to shake things up in his next project, a men-only drama set during the gay heyday of early 1980s New York that we also discuss below.
“The Duke of Burgundy” premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival opens in New York, LA and on VOD Friday, January 23.
Ryan Lattanzio: After your second film, “Berberian Sound Studio,” got rejected by Berlin and Cannes, you were approached to direct a film in the style of Jess Franco. How did “The Duke of Burgundy” come to be?
Peter Strickland: “The Duke of Burgundy” was rejected by Cannes as well. “Berberian” was kind of on the scrapheap at that time. No one seemed to want it. No one seemed to be into it.
Strickland: Fuck, I don’t know.
Well, it ended up being a bit of a cause célèbre among American film critics.
Strickland: “Berberian” divides people. Even when I made it, it divided people. It was very clear during the production there were certain camps who were not into it. It was just bad luck that the camp that didn’t like it were the ones at Cannes and Berlin who saw it. It was actually Chris Fujiwara at the Edinburgh Film Festival who saw it, and really believed in it. That really gave me a new lease of life. At that point, Edinburgh was at its lowest ebb. It had had a disastrous year. I don’t know what happened. It was all weird. I’m not in that part of the world. It was the worst time to go to Edinburgh. It was a really low point but weirdly it completely played into our favor because you could become noticed quite quickly. Had Cannes accepted us, god knows what would have happened. If Cannes wanted the film, we’d always go to Cannes, of course we would. We’d always like to go there. But what happened worked out just fine. We got distribution, but I felt like I’d screwed it up. I had this feeling that I was no longer welcome.
I met [producer] Andy Starke, who works outside the industry. He’s not based in London. I’m not based in London. He had this idea of doing a remake of Jess Franco’s “Lorna the Exorcist” and I thought, “Why not? What the hell.” There was a genuine feeling that no one was watching, so there was no expectation.
But “The Duke of Burgundy” ultimately isn’t a remake of “Lorna the Exorcist.”
The remake thing got boring. I didn’t like it. What’s really interesting about the sexploitation genre is that it’s just completely disregarded — not completely but you know what I mean. Giallo is regarded now, but not all those sex films. But I thought, let’s just try something with those stereotypes and take it somewhere else. But there was that feeling of no expectations, that I could just try something sleazy. But the film ended up not being sleazy, not by design, it just ended up that way. That was that freedom just to do whatever the hell I wanted.
So these “lowbrow,” low-budget ’70s genre movies are an entry-point for you.
Not all the time. I’m aware now, I’ve done three like that: rape revenge in “Katalin Varga,” gothic horror and giallo in “Berberian” and sexploitation in “Duke.” I feel like I’m going to repeat myself if I do it again. I like that stuff but I want to shed my skin now and put everything into the trash that I’ve done before and start afresh without refrencing things all the time. I’m a big film fan. I love watching films.
You can tell in all of your films that you’ve seen a lot of movies. You don’t shy away from making references.
Yeah but I’m worried about it becoming, what’s the word, a cliche? A trope? I don’t want it to be like “spot the reference.” It was never meant to be that way. The reference in “The Duke of Burgundy” is Stan Brakhage but it’s not about shoehorning it in, like, “Oh look at my film collection, look at my record collection.” It’s more about this serving the anxiety of the character. I do enjoy referencing things but I don’t think it’s important for the audience to get the references either. When I grew up watching Greenaway films, I always felt stupid afterwards because I didn’t get half the things, especially the later stuff.
I don’t either.
I still love them, but I didn’t want the audience to feel patronized. Ultimately I’m just trying to make the most intense experience possible.
The most dramatic jump between “Berberian” and “Duke” is that you go from a mostly male-centered movie, where many of the women are killed off but they also have some degree of power, to a completely female movie here.
Initially I was just trying to work out how to have both the masochist and the put-upon dominant: could it be a man as a dominant? A woman? I think “Fifty Shades” is coming out and I didn’t want that. As a man I feel in this day and age of a lot of stupidity, it’s very dangerous signal to send as a male director. All these things are very sensitive and within the consensual boundary it’s fine. I don’t know, I felt some discomfort with that. The purest thing i could’ve done was have two men. That’s the safest thing I could’ve done, but i’m doing that with another film with an all-male cast. So I just said, fuck it, let’s just have two women. I’m going to get attacked for it, but let’s just do it.
One way to neutralize it was to have it an all-female world, because they’re not lesbians then. There’s no social acceptance or rejection involved. There’s no counterpoint, and also by having a lot of older women in the background down the street, old ladies holding hands, you don’t get this typical heterosexual view which would’ve been long-legged beauties and so on.
Well you risk being accused of misogyny when you’re a male director but especially when you are torturing the women, whereas you’re not doing that. I really felt that there was a sense of love between the two characters.
Absolutely. For me it is a love story. Absolutely. Had I seen this film not having made it, I wouldn’t have the feeling it was ever going to evolve into something really dark. Even the Clade Chabrol film, “Les Biches,” which I really love and which kind of inspired this film, gets dark in the end where one murders the other. But for me, it seemed more radical to make it very tender, but there’s great sadness. They stay together, but that’s the ultimate tragic ending.
This a lurid film, thematically and conceptually. But there’s no real nudity or anything visually explicit.
Part of this was not wanting to get into this game of competition, because there was the Kechiche film (“Blue Is The Warmest Color”), there was Lars von Trier (“Nymphomaniac”) as well. There’s a danger of becoming this — and I’m not saying they are — I just thought, “Why don’t we go the other way completely?” For me it was not about making an erotic film. If people find it erotic, fine. That was not the intention. The intention was just to observe these lovers but really the ultimate thing was to have one of them who’s not into kink. If they were both into kink it’s not interesting to me. One of them has these needs. How does that work within the consensual boundary? How far does coercion puncture it?
And at first, the one who has these needs, Evelyn, doesn’t seem to be the kinky one but that evolves as the older woman, Cynthia, seems to get bored with S&M in a way.
Putting on a persona all the time, not even just in the bedroom but as work, whatever you do, is taxing. The whole idea is that Cynthia’s being spoiled. She gets her foot rubbed—who wouldn’t decline a foot rub? But at a cost. What I find really interesting was that Evelyn loves to give backrubs but as soon as Cynthia needs one for medical reasons, she’s not interested. That’s exactly the same acton that’s required but the dynamic has changed.
Toward the end of the film, it’s clear that Cynthia is not getting off on the S&M relationship as she first did.
Right. She’s getting off vicariously. She’s not, in my mind, a naturally dominant person. She deeply loves her partner. Like any human being, whether platonically or not, you enjoy doing things that make someone you love happy, even if it’s boring as hell for you. That’s what we all do. Obviously the specifics are very niche. By having it as something that alienates a lot of people at the beginning, and by normalizing it, by implying that everyone’s into it, that it’s not some sort of freak-show corner, you see actually that they have the same beats as us: they love each other, they bicker.
Were your actresses ever uncomfortable during the shoot?
They were uncomfortable, though never with the sex scenes weirdly. I don’t understand that. I was expecting it to be really tense. They just got on with it. I don’t know why. In the drama scenes there was more tension. They were finding the tone. It’s such an intimate film that getting to know each other was a big part of it. They’re both out of their own zones, working with this fairly untested director.
And the shoot, at only 24 days, was fairly short. They had to develop their own character beats very quickly.
With each film you’re always learning and learning. I realize how much actors love re-takes. Sometimes I’m happy on the first take; sometimes you realize i’m happy with it but let’s not say it to them. They like to keep going, they like to warm up. I know in my mind that first take we’re going to use in the edit. But actors love warming up to a point.
The title is a bit of wink. There is no Duke in the movie. What’s that about?
I liked it because it was the only concession to masculinity really. It was misleading, I always like misleading titles. “Duke of Burgundy” gives this idea of a “Downton Abbey” type of period film. Obviously the butterfly it references is in the film. Otherwise it’s title is a feeling. It’s not a illustrative title at all as you well know.
Both “Berberian” and “Duke of Burgundy” follow a fairly traditionally shaped storyline until, both films, toward the end descend into a very strange rabbit hole. I don’t want to say Lynchian.
Please, I’m glad you don’t!
I know you don’t want to hear that. Because your films are not really “Lynchian,” but their resistance to easy interpretation makes it very easy for people to say that.
It’s funny because for a lot of younger people, that’s their only references for strangeness. I love Lynch but is that all you can come up with? There is so much beyond Lynch. I swear. You know me. I am completely open about references but “Mulholland Drive,” in both films, is not remotely a reference.
But each film, about two-thirds of the way in, takes a detour into a hallucinatory montage, setting the plot aside to enter into something stranger, more pure cinema, and more about sensation than sense or logic. What’s going on there?
It’s hard to say really. In “Berberian,” a lot of that came from Nurse with Wound records, where you have this methodical repetition, this coldness, and then suddenly you have this jump cut. You go down this absurd, as you say, “rabbit hole” of going into some completely different kind of [experience]. I heard that record 20 years ago and thought, “It’s really radical. Where did that come from?” I haven’t seen that done in film, though I am sure that it has been done. Peter Tscherkassky was also a massive influence. When I saw “Outer Space,” he caught the essence of what I was trying to do, which was taking a genre film and completely warping it and turning it into his own thing. To go from this relentless darkness to cows gently grazing in a field seemed to make sense to me in a way. That sequence in “Duke” when [the camera] goes between Cynthia’s legs is like a shared dream. You’re not sure whose, but it just kind of mirrored the anxiety they were going through, the frustrations.
To me, it felt like the movie was dreaming.
I’m a big Kenneth Anger fan and to me the idea of cinema as a spell, that is a kind of witchcraft, putting an audience into a trance, into another world, I’d be a fraud to attempt. So when Evelyn is under her sexual spell with the carpenters coming in and she’s preempting being locked under the bed, all those sequences we try to do in this very heightened way. I’m not a big plot person so mood is very much part of it. I don’t really worry too much as a filmmaker or even as a member of the audience about understanding. When I watch the Quay Brothers’ “Street of Crocodiles,” I don’t understand it at all but that’s one of my favorite films. Mood and atmosphere: you can’t put a price on that, you can’t put it on the page. It’s really about going with those highs and lows, almost like music in a sense.
From a visual standpoint, you do that beautifully in your films. Maybe that’s why the response to “Berberian” was divisive. Audiences can’t always get on board with pure mood.
I understand that. It’s just about putting on a different head. That’s all it is. Putting on a head that says “I’m not going to worry about metaphors or plot.”
Your next movie is going to be all-male, and explicitly gay. What can you tell me about that project?
I don’t know about the next one because it’s going to be quite expensive to fund. It’s set in the early ’80s, or 1980. I can tell you a little bit. I wanted to delve into this period between Stonewall and AIDS, this oasis in western history where gay men were completely free to have this hedonistic lifestyle and there were no social consequences, no medical consequences. They could just run free and had they not had that repression prior to that, it might not have been as intense. That sense of release from being ashamed of who you are. I was really fascinated by [electronic dance music composer] Patrick Cowley’s life, not as a biopic because he was based in San Francisco, of course, but I wanted to take that to New York, where the first filmmakers I knew were Nick Zedd and Bruce LaBruce. My first job was for the LaBruce film “Skin Flick, so that whole thing in New York, the Paradise Garage, Danceteria, The Pyramid Club I love.
What’s so challenging about this project?
“The Duke” was like a walk in the park to finance. Like, a million. With this one, I know, it will be very hard to get people in to see that kind of subject, plus you’ve got the expense of recreating that whole thing. I’m trying to find a way to make it cheap, which could work because I wasn’t around during that time so it’s impossible to be authentic, and with that you think “Let’s just be fake, let’s be artificial.” Like what Fassbinder did with “Querelle” — maybe that’s a way around it.