Interview: Peter Strickland
Peter Strickland knows how to create self-contained miniaturist dreamscapes (real or not) in which submissive types can luxuriate in masochistic misery. As the oppressed, manipulated sound recordist Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is to the world of fetishized analog equipment in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, so the little maid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is to the world of fetishized dead butterflies, uncleaned boots, and unwashed panties (in myriad colors) in The Duke of Burgundy. Unlike Gilderoy, she is not under the thrall of xenophobic Italian giallo moviemakers, but a stern, posh mistress, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who, when she misbehaves, takes her into a backroom (and offscreen) rains something on her that isn’t Cabernet Sauvignon.
Which is Strickland’s way of setting up an S&M dynamic that isn’t what it seems—and the demands and pressures of which cause a universally relatable rift in boss and drudge’s codependent relationship. Likely to be the year’s most significant antidote to the airbrushed (by Hallmark) perversity promised by Fifty Shades of Gray, Strickland’s third feature is another instant classic written and directed by the Budapest-based English filmmaker.
FILM COMMENT spoke to Strickland this week in Manhattan, where he will introduce the magazine’s double-feature sneak-preview of The Duke of Burgundy with the 1986 movie Mano Destra at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Is The Duke of Burgundy’s relationship to Seventies European erotica—the films of Jess Franco especially—the same as Berberian Sound Studio’s relationship to giallos? There’s clearly something more personal going on—Evelyn being a director surrogate who creates these perfectible rituals with role-playing, scripts, costumes, décor, and performance demands?
Absolutely, yeah. That was one of the great joys of doing it. The beauty of sadomasochism is that it provides this theatrical arena, not only to explore power dynamics in any relationship, but also power dynamics between directors and actors. I liked the parallel between Evelyn’s script and my script, the marking tape she puts on the floor, and Cynthia’s fear of getting her performance wrong—not just through forgetting a line but if the nuance is not there, if her conviction is not enough. There was a scene, which was cut out for other reasons, where Evelyn said: “What’s your problem? Most people would be happy to be spoiled and have their feet rubbed?” But what she doesn’t see is the psychological pressure she puts on Cynthia to perform and be something she’s not by dressing up and so on. What if she’s no good at tying knots?
I’ve noticed in Berberian and this film how interested I am in artifice: the process of writing and using dialogue, the process of acting. I try to find ways to not make it cold and film school-y, to weld these things into the narrative so there’s an emotional reason for the self-reflexive elements. Cynthia and Evelyn don’t change much in those scenes where the dialogue is repeated and you know what they’re going to say each time, but it gives me great satisfaction knowing how the changes allow you to understand the shifting dynamics between them. Why it give me great satisfaction, I have no idea.
It’s disconcerting witnessing Cynthia’s increasing discomfort in the dominant role.
For me there was something touching about someone delivering that commanding dialogue with such weakness and vulnerability. I love that dichotomy. It’s the paradox of controlling how much you are controlled by someone else. I’m not criticizing Evelyn, but the back rubs and foot rubs she’s made to give Cynthia are all given on Evelyn’s terms. When Cynthia needs a back rub for medical reasons, OK, Evelyn does it, but she’s looking at her watch. When Evelyn is truly punished, it’s pretty unpleasant for her.
Yes, the sexual thrill is absent. These rituals are only exciting to her when she’s controlling the artifice. One wonders if she’s really a masochist.
Someone else asked me that. There are so many different layers of masochism. There are arguably elements of masochism and sadism in all of us. A film such as Fassbinder’s Martha shows a very different kind of masochism. Margit Carstensen’s character is completely terrorized by her husband, played by Carl Boehm. He goes away for the weekend and forces her to revise all these chapters on engineering so he can have a conversation with her, which is hilarious but as disturbing as hell. It’s masochism that’s not so much sexual as emotional.
I’m not a psychologist and I haven’t seen it covered much in film, but I assume Evelyn’s brand of masochism, where she’s the one calling the shots, does exist. I wanted something that started off like a lot of those Franco films did, where a fantasy is embodied. I’m not trying to put those films down because they have some remarkable moments, but what I wanted to do was puncture the fantasy and show the dominant woman in her pajamas. She’s not someone who goes to bed in her stilettos. You see her miss her cues and you see her out of character. It’s something you would never see in the average sexploitation film. Franco was inventive, but some of the more traditional sexploitation directors would have to obey the producer’s commands to get the audience off. I’m hoping this film does the opposite. I’m not saying it’s anti-erotic and I don’t want to say “How dare you get off on this film!” but I’m trying to unpeel different layers, hopefully without passing any kind of judgment.
BDSM has become mainstreamed to some extent. Something like Fifty Shades of Grey shows the acceptance of it in a cosmeticized form…
[Sighs] Yeah, anything consensual’s fine. If it’s spoken about, it’s good, no matter what one thinks of the films or books that are getting it out there.
When Evelyn’s script is burned at the end of the film, however, I did get the sense that you’re suggesting that overindulging fetishises within an intimate relationship can be alienating without the safety net of love and affection.
It was more that one of them was not into it. Had they both been into it, it would have been like a Richard Curtis film for me. There would have been too much harmony. Cynthia would have had no interest in tying Evelyn up, or whatever, had it not been requested. Had they both been into it, there would have been no need to burn the script. But it wouldn’t have been an interesting film for me to make, because my interest is in discord and having the characters misbehave. Evelyn doesn’t misbehave because she’s a masochist—she just misbehaves. I wanted to imply that everyone plays these games—therefore it’s not this unusual thing that needs some kind of judgment cast on it.
It’s tricky. You always want to push this kind of subject—you don’t want to be politically correct—but at the same time, you want to give the characters some dignity; you don’t want to laugh at them. There is scope, with any activity, of things going wrong. I’m not making a realistic film, but I’m making something that’s exploring the pragmatics of enacting role-play, such as missing a cue or being bitten by a mosquito when you’re tied up in a trunk at night.
I do think that people might think, what is this director saying? It’s important to note that you can see Cynthia’s character is not getting indulged when she wants to go for an ice cream or do something else regular like that. She’s ignored. She gets a lot of vicarious joy in doing what she does for Evelyn, knowing she’s desired when she’s paranoid about getting older—it gives anyone satisfaction to know they can physically arouse someone—but it has limited mileage. Clearly the dynamic is slightly lopsided. At the end [where Cynthia has dressed up again and is awaiting Evelyn’s arrival at their house], we don’t know if it’s a flashback to the beginning of the film or if they’ve reverted to their old habits—maybe Cynthia won’t answer the door and will escape out the back.
Did you read Freud on feminine masochism?
No. My research was fairly artificial.
What prompted you to make a film about sadomasochism in the first place?
I had some experience working with Cinema of Transgression filmmakers like Nick Zedd. I worked on a Bruce LaBruce film called Skin Flick, which was in that zone. It was never my intention back then to do something like that, but things bubble up again. Buñuel’s Belle de Jour bubbled up. The actual spark was Andy Starke, the producer, saying, “I want to remake The Exorcist,” which got me thinking about some of the tropes in a Franco film. I’m not trying to be elevated—it just organically ended up somewhere else.
In terms of the characters, I tried to use my “what if?” head. If you lock someone in a trunk, the first question in your mind is, can they breathe? But that’s the last thing you want to hear if you want to be locked in a trunk. You want the person who’s locked you in to be stern. Writing it was about playing ping-pong in my head as I tried to live out these characters. Two people could be used to most regular sexual act—but what if one of them goes along with it even though they find it a bit distasteful? I can’t give an answer to this, but what do you do? Do you keep sexually engaging with someone who is compromising himself or herself by doing something they don’t really like doing to please you? But if they don’t do it, are you compromising yourself by repressing profound desires you have to live out? These are all ideas I’m hoping the audience will argue about among themselves.
Ultimately, I see this as a kind of domestic drama, something very quotidian, a story about everyday bickering. It doesn’t matter what the activities surrounding it are. Really, this film is exploring the idea of consent veering into compromise veering into coercion, and seeing how that works for people who have different needs. It doesn’t have to be sexual. It could be anything—different career needs, for example.
I was struck by the film’s morbid Victorian atmosphere: the pinned butterflies with their splayed wings, the shots of fallen leaves in the autumn, the skeleton in the trunk that Cynthia imagines or dreams about. I wondered if you were equating Cynthia’s masochism with the death instinct.
It didn’t occur to me. The skeleton came quite late. Initially, the film was going to be set in the spring. Partly because of the money coming together a bit later than we thought it would, we shifted toward the autumn. That worked in my favor because it gave me an autumnal sense of “this cycle is over”—not so much a death instinct—with the insects emigrating to warmer climes. I wouldn’t call it a metaphor but there’s a strong connection between the idea of the mole cricket lying dormant [in winter, as discussed in an entomology lecture] and Evelyn is in her little “tomb.” In fact, there’s an Italian film called The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. The autumnal feeling enhanced the idea that this love affair is perhaps reaching its natural end, or going into dormancy. Or maybe Evelyn’s desires will go into dormancy while Cynthia goes for her ice creams.
Why did you make Cynthia a lepidopterist?
Again, there’s no metaphor there. I think there’s something about butterflies—Surrealists use them, they just have a certain texture, the texture of the underwear. There’s an atmosphere there that I really like. I wasn’t so concerned about the idea of metamorphosis or why the butterflies are pinned. It just worked—it’s hard to say why. For the scene in which Evelyn is going through this extreme anxiety, the strongest image I could find was moths invading the screen. OK, part of it was a reference to Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, but I didn’t want to just shoehorn it in as if to say: “Look at what I’m into.” It simply had a power to it. Sometimes it’s hard to say why images have this power. Certainly, though, I think the film could have survived without butterflies.
Several times, at emotionally heightened moments, the film drifts off into abstraction. That happens, for example, when the camera dollies between Cynthia’s parted legs toward her vagina. It’s literally a penetrative shot. It feels like you were imposing masculinity, consciously or unconsciously, on the femme world of the film, as naming it The Duke of Burgundy [a species of European butterfly] also does. Did you have to think about restraining your male perspective?
Yeah, it was very difficult, because it would’ve been incredibly arrogant to pretend I could adopt a female gaze. All I could do was be aware of the pitfalls of having a male gaze in this context, and to not make the camera so directional or mechanical, with a few exceptions, such as the one you mentioned. So it was more about softening my maleness. In hindsight, I can see, yeah, it has that feel of penetration, though when I wrote it and when we shot it, it didn’t feel that way. For me, it was more about the power of that intimate part of the body for the person who desires it and how you get sucked into it. Evelyn, we see, clearly enjoys going down on Cynthia, but the shot occurs at that point in the film when it is denied to Evelyn. I was interested in the idea of traveling into a forbidden zone—though I don’t want to get too silly about it. As for “The Duke of Burgundy” as a title, I think it was a purposeful reference to masculinity, though I’m not saying I am “the Duke.”
To be honest, I’m amazed I haven’t had more criticism for making a film about two women; I’m sure I’ll get some. It would have been more logical to make a film about two men. I do that have in mind for a project, and it’ll be very interesting to see how quickly I can get that funded, though being a man myself it might actually be weird having a man dominant over a man because it’d involve a very specific, physical kind of power—if a woman directed that story, fine. I’m not saying that other men wouldn’t tackle it, but I’d feel a bit strange doing it. There was an advantage in making a film about two women.
Cynthia and Evelyn occupy a very hermetic female enclave, sealed off from any particular time, apparently sealed off from men. Because Cynthia uses a typewriter working, one assumes that it’s not the present.
It could be set in the future…
And it could be anywhere in Europe. It’s a kind of dream world isolated from the problems of work and survival.
Yeah. They did have jobs in the first draft—Cynthia was a hairdresser—but somehow that made the class system creep into it. I guess that doesn’t mean much, because class always creeps into everything. I thought, why don’t we make it like a fable, like a fairy tale? It’s preposterous: how the hell can they afford that place if they don’t have jobs? The entomology is just a hobby—they might be on welfare! By eliminating that social aspect, by eliminating the homosexuality of it all—because there’s no counterpoint, no issue of acceptance or rejection—hopefully you focus on the dynamic of the relationship. That was my intention. I also didn’t want to explore the background of why Evelyn is the way she is. I don’t want to psychoanalyze someone. It’s more about how you navigate around these different desires.
In the future, do you think you might go further in stripping away social context?
At the moment I’m doing the opposite. I wouldn’t dream of calling it social realism and I’m not trying to go in the Ken Loach or Mike Leigh or Dardennes Brother direction, but I’m writing something for my friends—the actors from my first film, Katalin Varga—that’s set now, in the real world, just to try it. Basically, it’s about Romanians working in the U.K. But I don’t want to turn it into a message film or anything like that. I just want to just have fun with it. At the moment, there’s no plan of going further in that oneiric direction. But who knows? I might go back to it in the future.