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Peter Strickland: The Movies That Influenced The Erotic & Sensual ‘The Duke Of Burgundy’

Peter Strickland: The Movies That Influenced The Erotic & Sensual 'The Duke Of Burgundy'

If there’s another movie that feels like the interstice between withering-relationship dramas, sexy thrillers and Stan Brakhage, please let us know, because for now all we have is Peter Strickland’s ravishing third film “The Duke of Burgundy.” The story centers on two women (Chiara D’Anne and Sidse Babett Knudsen of “Borgen“) who find their love tested in ways that all long-time lovers must eventually. They also just happen to be really into dominance and submission. 

‘Duke’ is a work that will resonate with anyone that has ever been in a heated battle with their partner. Strickland turns a discerning eye towards mountains-out-of-molehills moments, mining both discomfort and comedy from the games people play. When we saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, we called it a “work of immense and intense emotional vigor, sprinkled with fun-loving traits and intellectually stimulating prowess.”

We recently sat down with the director to see what particular movies fed into the conception of ‘Duke,’ from the work of the much lauded Rainer Werner Fassbinder to likes of the lesser celebrated (at least around these parts) Jesus Franco.
1. “Les Biches” & “Belle de Jour”
“‘Les Biches’ was an influence. We modeled Cynthia’s hair on one of the actresses. ‘Belle de jour’ has a scene that in hindsight I realized is the seed for ‘Duke’: it’s when the client playing the butler in the bordello is getting told off by the madame. She gets a line wrong and he asks her to do it again… I realized that’s the whole Duke in the whole scene. That level of artifice and theatricality was incredible.”

2. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films

“‘Fox And His Friends,’ for the way he tapped gay relationships. He brings his boyfriend over to dinner to meet his parents. And he’s gay, but it’s not about that he’s gay. It’s as if he brought the girlfriend over. There was no question of his sexuality. It’s just ‘who is this person’ and they chat. That was really radical for the ’70s.”

“Then there’s ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.’ The maid is treated like a dog for most of the film, and it’s only later on that I realized that that’s how she likes to be treated. And when Petra becomes weak at the end, the appeal is lost for the servant and she just walks away. And I thought that was so powerful: this need for another person to be powerful. It’s a really brutal film about relationships.”

“But the most brutal one he ever did was ‘Martha.’ This is proper masochism. Because in the ‘Duke of Burgundy’ there was consent all around and there’s a lot of tenderness. It’s much much deeper.

 One of the most disturbing scenes is when the husband goes to a conference on engineering, and he forces his wife to revise all these chapters on bridge building so he can have a meaningful conversation with her when comes home. Who else would’ve thought of that besides Fassbinder? A stunning film. Incredibly sad. My film wasn’t supposed to be so dark, you know?”

3. “Terry And June”

“There’s one TV show I used to love in the ’80s called ‘Terry And June.’ It was the blandest thing you could imagine, this middle age couple who bicker a lot. It was like a comedy. They’re always in bed, no sex, just reading their newspapers together. I tried to get that sense of humor and some of that sense of being over-familiar with someone. When you take on sensational subject like sadomasochism, the preconception is that you’re going to have this perfect ice queen, but I want to strip that away. At some point they’re going to want to be in their pajamas. To wear all those clothes must be quite challenging all the time.”

4. “Mano Destra”

“There’s a black and white film called ‘Mano Destra‘ which has no dialogue, it’s a bondage film by Cleo Ubelmann —she plays this dominant woman tying up this younger woman. But I basically copied (laughs) the footstep motif —you know, the high heels that Evelyn’s character loves to hear. A huge part of the film is this sense of anticipation, you’re waiting for this person who will either set you free or punish you, and you hear her coming…who knows what she’ll do?”

5. Sexual, Trashy Films
‘Some of Walerian Borowczyk’s stuff.. his non-Polish phase. There’s a wonderful atmosphere to those films. Very languid, melancholic. Maybe some Radley Metzger. There’s a very obvious Metzger touch in ‘The Image,‘ but I’m not crazy about that film. ‘The Lickerish Quartet,’ mostly for the production value and so on. ‘All Ladies Do It‘ by Tinto Brass… you know, it’s more about taking the core of these kinds of films —they almost always have female lovers— and taking that idea somewhere else. Sadomasocism figured into all of them. A lot of these films were all made by (I assume) heterosexual male directors for a heterosexual male audience, which is something that I have to be very careful about.”

6. Jesus Franco

“The Franco ones I really love, which I’m not trying to be ironic about. They’re very dynamic, very unique beautiful films. ‘A Virgin Among the Living Dead,’ ‘Venus In Furs,’ ‘Lorna The Exorcist,‘ even though I don’t really feel that there are too many similarities. Franco is more about using the jib, the camera and using the zoom. And I think what Franco did a lot is make eye contact with the camera, which I do a lot, but without making it Brechtian —it’s still part of his hypnotic trance.”

The Duke Of Burgundy” opens in limited release on January 23rd.

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