Peter Strickland Talks About Love, Sex, Masochism, and ‘The Duke of Burgundy’
After wowing audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, IFC Films and Sundance Selects are releasing Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy in theatres and on VOD this weekend. The film, heavily inspired by the likes of Jess Franco, follows an unconventional relationship between two women; Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, who some might recognize from the TV show Borgen), an orthopterist, and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), an amateur lepidopterist (in other words, they study butterflies and moths, among other insects). They engage in a daily game with each other, one where Cynthia exerts total control over Evelyn. Eventually the film reveals there’s much more to this ritual, and as the two women try to accommodate each other’s desires their relationship gets put to the test.
Writer/director Peter Strickland might have made his best work yet with The Duke of Burgundy. Like his previous films Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland works with old influences, the kind some would describe as trashy, and makes something entirely unique with them. This time, Strickland takes his inspiration from sleazy 70s Euro erotica films, using it to weave together a beautiful love story about the compromises that come with any relationship.
After the film’s world premiere at TIFF, I sat down with Peter Strickland to talk about The Duke of Burgundy. Read on for the full interview, where we discuss the film’s origins as an ultra low budget affair, the actress’ fears going into the film, the story behind the gorgeous location, and what clichés Strickland tried to avoid while making the film. And be sure to watch The Duke of Burgundy this weekend in theatres or on VOD.
Stylistically speaking, The Duke of Burgundy is similar to Berberian Sound Studio, but all of your films cover very different material. Katalin Varga is a revenge tale, Berberian deals with a mental breakdown, and The Duke of Burgundy is essentially a love story. Do you purposely try to avoid dealing with similar subject matter whenever you start working on a new project?
Maybe now. It didn’t used to be that way. After Berberian there was a chance to do a film involved with sound again, but I thought it might not be such a good move. I’d love to go back to it, though. I’d love to go back to all these subjects, but I think you can’t really do them justice with one film. I think it’s just spreading out your obsessions [Laughs]. Putting them between each other, not next to each other.
Since this is a film about a lesbian BDSM relationship, did you have a harder time selling the film to people in order to get funds?
It’s so weird, because it’s a very different time. Over 2 years ago, when I started this project, Berberian Sound Studio was in the garbage. Berlin rejected it, Cannes rejected it, and I thought we fucked it up. Then I met Andy Starke and Pete Tombs from Rook Films. They offered me to work for them and make a film for 20,000 pounds. All of us thought no one would be interested in The Duke of Burgundy because of a) Berberian being in no man’s land, and b) the subject matter. Then suddenly Berberian got recognized, and surprisingly [the financiers] were really interested. In my mind I thought I was making a sleazy little film, but suddenly people were responding to it positively. So the budget went up drastically. It didn’t go over the budget for Berberian, but that was a purposeful thing to keep it below. That way we could keep control.
What was the casting process like? Did you try to get the two actresses together beforehand to make sure they had the right chemistry?
They met. We went to a hotel to do a read through at a dinner table. It’s always nerve-wracking when you put two actors together who don’t know each other. Very nerve-wracking. We were lucky. Both of them are great. Sidse has a remarkable ability to inhabit another world and bring what I’ve written to life somehow. And Chiara has done well, especially considering it’s her second film. This is her first lead role. Both of them were scared going into it for different reasons. I think Chiara was scared because it’s her first lead role, and Sidse was scared because it was a complete departure from Borgen in every sense. I think she took a huge risk, so just for that alone I really respect her.
You take a bit of time to establish the true dynamics of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship.
I wanted to start it off like a genre film, like Olga’s House of Shame or something, with the evil boss everyone’s supposed to be turned on by. Those films are interesting. They completely embody a sexual fantasy, but they’re always portrayed as a terrible house of sin or something. It starts out a bit like that. You start off feeling very sorry for Evelyn being pissed on, and then you feel very sorry for Cynthia having to piss on Evelyn. The idea was to first reveal it’s obviously a game, and then reveal it’s actually more than that.
When films deal with something involving BDSM, a lot of the times there’s an association of something negative or dangerous about it. What surprised me about your film is that it never feels judgmental about the characters or their sexual preferences. There’s some humour about their lifestyle, but it never feels like we’re meant to laugh at them.
No, I never wanted to do that.
Did you have concerns going in over how to portray their relationship, and if so how did you address them?
Whatever you do, someone’s gonna slag you off, so that wasn’t ever really a concern for me. It’s just wrong, especially as a filmmaker, to judge people’s sexual behavior which is consensual. The whole activity of bondage is based on tenderness and trust. I am laughing at the practicalities of this, and how you pit it against real life. I’m certainly not interested in their backgrounds or why they have these desires. It’s like saying why is so-and-so heterosexual? I’m not interested. That’s not the film. The film is about how different needs can work in a relationship.
I haven’t seen a lot of films with that subject. I didn’t want to have the conventional trappings, like the whips, the leather, the rubber, or handcuffs, because it’s a cliché. It’s far more interesting to still have that intense bondage dynamic without the stuff you’d expect. And the other important thing was to show the mask behind the masochist, and how the masochist controls the dominant one. The films I had seen, the dominant person, whether it’s a man or woman, is inherently dominant. But of course, that’s not the case usually. And the idea of a masochist wanting a truly dominant person is absurd, because the masochist wants to control it. It’s something we all know, but I hadn’t seen it done in films before.
And the way you show their relationship feels very observant. You’re never condoning or condemning them for what they like. It just is what it is.
I really was mindful of not wanting to be for or against sadomasochistic activities. I’m observing what they do. It’s something with many parallels to filmmaking, performance, with all our lives. With persona and power, it’s in all relationships, even down to social conditioning between men and women, and who the man is supposed to be. In many countries the man is supposed to be the one who’s always going to know where you’re going to go on the date, how you’re going to get there, etc. If you’re allotted that position of being the dominant one, like any human being you just want to have some time out. You just want to sit back and wear your pajamas like Cynthia.
I got that feeling with Cynthia. Sometimes she wanted something more conventional within the relationship, but at other times it felt like she was just bored with the routine itself.
She’s bored. She’ll do [the games] because she has vicarious pleasure from it, from seeing Evelyn’s intense excitement for it. It’s almost like a turn-on for her. She’s not against the games as such. What she’s against is the fatigue of doing it again and again and again. She doesn’t really like doing these things to Evelyn, but it’s that thing about compromise. What’s worse: Evelyn suppressing her desires, or Cynthia doing something she finds repellant? Who is right, who is wrong? I don’t want to wag any fingers. I want to present a world, and you out in the audience can wag your fingers amongst yourselves and sort it out.
You have these very evocative, abstract sequences where the film feels like it’s overwhelmed with emotion.
That’s Nick [Knowland], he’s a great cinematographer. He worked with the Brothers Quay, so I was a big fan of his work. The whole film was like a bit of a spell. It has this intense sexual headiness. It was a case of trial and error until we would find the right superimposition that worked. It did create something quite special, which somehow caught that mood of abandon or whatever you want to call it.
Did you shoot the film on a set, or in a real house?
It was all found spaces.
How long did it take to find the location?
It took a while, but not too long. I first saw that house in Hungary and went to visit it. I went there and thought, oh my God, this is terrible. I imagined something a bit smaller. We found out afterwards that it was the weekend house of János Kádár, the communist leader of Hungary, so it has a bit of a history to it. It was a bomb site, completely gutted. No furniture, no wallpaper, nothing. It stank to high heaven of mold and damp. It was disgusting. You would literally vomit if you went into the bathroom. But we had this amazing production designer, Pater Sparrow, who completely made it into something else. We didn’t have money to re-tile the bathroom, so he just scrubbed all the white tiles and put blue stickers over them. He would find these really cheap ways of literally papering over the cracks. I do prefer shooting in found spaces. I could never believe we were in a studio in Berberian because I knew we were creating a studio within a studio. I can enjoy this one more because I know those spaces existed in real life.
Berberian Sound Studio primarily had two locations, and this film mostly stays within one area. Does making films with characters in small, limited settings interest you?
Well if I’m brutally honest, a lot of it is budget [Laughs]. But I wouldn’t dream of doing a film with lots of people. I don’t want to rush into making films, I want to take my time bit by bit. I want to play it safe. Comfort zones. Very underrated things.
Do you think your next film(s) will be similar in that sense, then?
I don’t know. I certainly realized I love writing and directing, but I don’t want to be a hack for hire. What’s weird about it is that my inspiration does come from hacks. Actually, that’s not true. I mean, Jess Franco wasn’t a hack, he was a visionary. But it’s a mixture of things. Some of these exploitation films, the producers were the driving force. But I don’t know, to be honest. I’ll just go with the flow and see what happens.