After his last film, Berberian Sound Studio, British director Peter Strickland became quite a name film circles. The artistic flare of his cinematography, matched with a sensible wit and familiarity with Italian exploitation tropes allowed the film to perform well for diverse crowds. His follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy, is very much a similar beast. But, for all its similarities, Duke is a strikingly different work. Its not quite as vivacious, settling for a more understated and brooding approach. That doesn’t mean its humorless, however. The film just finds its humor in potentially more uncomfortable places. While it is a rumination on the erotic works of filmmakers like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, it seldom delves into explicit territories, at least not in the ways that you would expect. In short, its a fascinating look at not only love and desire but the structure of power and performativity inherent in relationships.
In the same way that Berberian plays with genre, Duke is a equally a revisionist film as it is an homage. Because genre cinema can, at times, hit a point where it gets so formulaic, films that truly shake things up can almost be easy to overlook it. This is certainly part of the case for Duke. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Duke has been ignored, it has performed favorably in festivals and for critics, but the support has not been strong enough. The Duke of Burgundy is a powerful film, one that has an important message about love and life. Its a film that grows stronger with each viewing. In light of the film’s Blu-ray release via Shout! Factory, Diabolique sat down with Strickland to discuss the film’s influences, design, and message.
Diabolique: Since its festival run and now onto its release, a lot of the reaction of the film has placed it in conversation with filmmakers like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. The importance of which is often overstated in some recent reviews, where the writer overlooks how different The Duke of Burgundy is from these filmmakers. How much of their work was on your mind approaching this film?
Peter Strickland: Not a huge amount. It was a starting point for me. To take some of the core elements — the Gothic elements of the female lovers, the sadomasochism, the fantastical atmosphere — but to put it in a very different context, to put it into the context of a domestic drama. I think that it organically ended up something really different. So when I look at the film now it doesn’t really resemble a Franco film. I’m not trying to say that it is an elevated genre thing, it is just different. I wanted to just peel away some of those tropes; to look behind some of those characters and the surface of the wicked warden and mistress, to see it in a different dynamic. I’m not saying all of them but some of those films were essentially what Evelyn dreams about when she is masturbating. Its like a ‘90-minute masturbation,’ everything is conforming to that fantasy. But once that orgasm is over, what happens to that ideal, dominant character? I want to see them go to bed in their pajamas, I want to see them snore, and I want to see the reality of people trying to conform a slave fantasy — which obviously involves human error, missing your cues, and getting the nuance wrong when you are trying to say a line to someone. So, yea, I guess I do love a lot of those films but in terms of actually copying stuff — I mean we copied a few shots, camera jibs, a couple of zooms but not a great deal. I mean, even [with Berberian Sound Studio] I had someone ask me about a reference to a film I had not even heard of, it was just an accident.
Diabolique: And the film never attempts exploitation. There isn’t that super voyeuristic lens. You use restraint to create an emotional connection between viewer and character, as opposed to a sexually tinged relationship based on watching. And, there is a lack of explicit nudity or acts shown on screen.
Strickland: It’s weird because it did get an 18 certificate in the UK. I kind of wanted it to be explicit in the audiences’ mind but try to find a different way to do it because all that nudity and the graphic nature has all been done. I can’t go any further than that. The restraint was not out of any kind of morality or trying to be a prude. I think restraint is the key word. The whole film is about restraint. I think a lot of Evelyn’s desires are about anticipation, chastity, and being held back and denied things. I think we are kind of doing the same thing to the audience in that regard.
Diabolique: It seems that so much of Duke makes clear the actual process of watching a film and the performativity of the whole process. There is a scene that comes to mind where Evelyn and Cynthia perform an “act” (to not spoil anything) in a closed off bathroom. The camera lingers outside and it becomes clear not only what they are doing just out of sight but that the pattern on the door that blocks our view resembles a blank film strip — almost to remind us what we are and are not watching, and the very nature of how film can negotiate between these states.
Strickland: I try to do these things quite naturally. I wanted to weave that into the whole fabric of the film and not do it as this exercise in performance, specifically with the repetition of the characters acting, acting out these things. There is to do it that it becomes intrinsically part of the whole story and not taken outside of the film. I always loved the element of artifice in films but it can become to academic and I just get kicked out, which I never like. I think the whole nature of these kind of role plays that Evelyn has does lend itself to a lot of fun you can have between parallels of directing: my directing and Evelyn’s directing; my script and Evelyn’s script.
Diabolique: There is an interesting dynamic of power, a push-pull in our sympathies for characters in the film, causing a switch in allegiance along the way. Was the choice to focus on a completely female world a way to get around exterior notions of power balance that would present itself with gendered roles? Did you ever imagine the film having male characters?
Strickland: Oh no I definitely did. They were not involved with the women, they were just colleagues but what was interesting about having no other gender was there was no counterpoint. Therefore, the whole other issue of being gay was abstracted somewhat. I’ve seen so many films about acceptance or rejection about being gay and I thought it has all been done before why don’t we do something that is taken for granted, this kind of utopia of a sense. Like this Fassbender film I saw, Fox and His Friends, there are women and men in the film but there is this scene where a character brings his boyfriend over for dinner and it’s completely given that he has a boyfriend. It’s not like, ‘oh god,’ [laughs] ‘we are going to have this whole coming out ritual,’ that was really radical, especially for the time. I wanted to do something like that, where being gay wasn’t an issue and having these desires wasn’t an issue. The carpenter that comes around, she’s happy to give details about the neighbor buying a bondage bed. There’s no shame there. There is so much demand and it doesn’t make them freaks. It is kind of normalizing those practices. It’s not, “oh my god, she’s into water sports isn’t that such a freakish thing,’ it’s not about that. It’s just something that she likes. It could be the most basic sexual act. It’s more about these lovers having different intimate needs and one going along with it, which is fun for awhile — she has this kind of precarious joy — but she kind of gets this performance fatigue.
Diabolique: An obvious thing for your work seems to be the heightened presence of sound. This was obvious with Berberian but even with Duke, it’s not just about music but the way that you push almost inaudible noises to a level where they are very prominent. Your cinema is very aural. What is it about pushing the sound boundaries that interests you?
Strickland: It always changes with each film. My job is just to observe the atmosphere of the film being made. With Berberian, that was very easy to do because sound was the subject. Usually when you have music in a film, you have to time and round it up nicely but we could just cut the music because you could just show a character punching the sound out on the mixing desk. With [Duke], it is a lot more quiet and restrained but it still takes a lot of effort to get it to that space. A lot of times it was taking sound away from the film. What I tried to do really was just let everything breathe more. Not to drawn attention to it but to make it as sensual as possible. As you mentioned, these bubbles popping in the sink, the floorboards creaking, and not being afraid of silence. There’s one thing we got wrong, where the music ended early and we had maybe about 30 seconds left before the scene ended. Instead of reediting or asking the band to make the song longer, we just said ‘just leave it.’ Just let the music run out and let the floorboards take over. It was just not having the fear of filling up the soundtrack. I tend to be somewhat adverse to library atmos. I often call up people I know who have a lot of private stuff they’ve recorded that hasn’t been used anywhere. Somehow that gives it a certain flavor without even trying. People such as Adam Burbidge and Michael Prime, I mean Michael Prime had these moth recordings that we used for the sort of dream sequence. Its just being respectful to those sounds and not try to treat them too much. Since I started off with music — I mean, I’m not very good at all that — in 1996 we got ahold of all these tape delay units and we just drenched everything in delay, reverb, feedback, and flangers. And, I just said, ‘what are we doing? We are just showcasing new technology, we aren’t revealing the actual sounds.’ It wasn’t until I later had people like Luke Ferrari, Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, Chris Watson, Francisco López, people who just let sound exist and did things with editing, juxtaposition, stereo-panning, and volume. You can really do something fascinating that way.
The Duke of Burgundy available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory