peter strickland on his obsessive compulsive lens
We speak to the Duke of Burgundy director as the film is screened at BFI's Flare LGBT film festival.
The Duke of Burgundy is Peter Strickland's love letter to 70s European erotica; it's an homage to a world of soft-focus photography, swirling romantic scores and top-heavy Europeans in flowing maxi dresses. But, like the rare butterfly from which the film takes its title, Duke of Burgundy is a strange beast: a British alternative take on the genre that pumps up the atmosphere, while stripping off the sleaze. From its colour-drenched opening titles (a nod to Rosemary's Baby), every aspect of the film is saturated in atmosphere and colour - a heavy, narcotic whooze that situates this world in a placeless timeframe. We spoke to Peter Strickland about insect scores, fetish and obsessive-compulsive behaviour.
The Duke of Burgundy is Strickland's third feature film, and follows the life of two women, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, from the TV series Borgen) and Evelyn (Berberian Sound Studio's Chiara D'Anna) who live in a gothic mansion in the middle of a forest. Cynthia is a lepidopterist - an expert on moths and butterflies. And everyone in the film (including the insects?) is female. Did he have to do much research on lepidoptery, I ask him. "I already knew quite a bit about mole crickets, so those lectures were easy to write. I had to read up on beetles a little and try to find small connections with either English or scientific names of butterflies and moths to the subject matter of the film. There are a few in-jokes, (which I've tried to list on the DVD) but nothing that will make me an honorary entomologist." Strickland did have the help of an on-set adviser who managed to turn a couple of heads: "Tamas Nemeth … helped us identify both living and pinned specimens. He turned heads wherever he went with his rugged good looks and open smile. Quite different from what you'd imagine an entomologist would look like."
is laden with cinematic influences, but as Strickland notes, photography and record covers also influenced his collagistic approach. Helmut Newton's photography was one ("I remember one of his of a woman in a forest with a cape that looked as if it belonged to a Buñuel film"), as were some of the record covers of Os Mutantes ("[one] had this wonderful faded decadence on the front cover"). Fashion plays a strong part in the women's role-playing, in the exertion of power and control. Pussy bow blouses, arched heels and tight black pencil skirts are the order of the day (as well as a particular attention to pyjama-wear). I ask about his working process with costume designer Andrea Flesch: "I just gave her loose guidelines ... I wanted to avoid the usual clichés around that subject matter; no leather or rubber. No denim either." The films of Buñuel (particularly ) and Claude Chabrol were points of reference here, but the film was not meant to be anchored in any particular time period. "I wanted capes, which gave the film a slightly Gothic fairy tale feel, but other than that, Andrea just went ahead [with it]."
In 1997 Strickland made a 16 mm narrative short in New York with Nick Zedd and Warhol Superstar Holly Woodlawn called Bubblegum. Since then, he's spoken in interviews about his love of the NYC-based 80's underground movement, the Cinema of Transgression. What ideas, if any, did he pick from them? "What I got from [their] ethos was the sense that we can empower ourselves by working with friends on cheap formats rather than ingratiate ourselves into a system," he tells me. "I can take it or leave it with all the drugs, sadomasochism and general debauchery. What I found inspiring was their attitude. They just got on with it but somehow made an impact without any PR campaigns. What I loved about those films was that they were incredibly obsessive. All my favourite films are made by people who are seeing the world through an obsessive or compulsive lens."
Obsession and compulsion are the obvious running threads throughout his films: from the closeted world of giallo sound design in Berberian Sound Studio to the insect field recordings of Duke of Burgundy, everything may be classified and compartmentalised. In Duke, even the mics and insects are name-checked in the credits, alongside the perfume worn by the characters. Strickland used field recordings by Martin Pavey (who also did all the sound post-production), Alan Burbidge, Michael Prime, Jonathan Coleclough, David Ragge, Jim Reynolds and John Leonard. "I can't put my finger on it, but those recordings have a lot of character. I don't know if that's just psychosomatic because I know these are originals, but … [they] have an identity, date, location, temperature even." Pavey and Strickland mostly left the field recordings alone. "Natural sound is strange enough as it is."
The lush, ghostly music of Faris Badwan and Rachel Zeffira's pop duo Cat's Eyes was a natural choice. With the sensual soundtracks of European exploitation cinema in mind, Cat's Eyes' sound contributed "that romantic, yearning … that could hopefully transcend the sleazier aspects of this film." And with a unique female voice to anchor the film in an explicitly feminine world, it promised "not to break the spell of the film's universe". Why did he opt to portray this film world as a female one, I ask. "I wanted to portray the sexual preferences in this film as the norm, not as the exception. I didn't want the love between two women or the sexual rituals to be portrayed as a social issue." That also comes from eliminating men, I presume. "There was a chance to somehow alleviate some of the male guilt associated with choosing this subject (with female lovers) by having several much older women in the background. One of my favourite shots in the film is of two old ladies walking down the street hand in hand. I wanted to get as far away as possible from The Worm That Turned by The Two Ronnies, as much as I love them."
BDSM has, thanks to a certain film of a different titular colour scheme, become hot topic. Moving from Grey to Burgundy, however, Strickland's film has, for some, been treated as an antidote to the usual portrayal of mainstream cinematic sexuality. This particular relationship exists outside of normal society, in a fairy-tale world more in line with that of Angela Carter, or an Anais Nin short story. "One of the problems was that this was just another film about a supposedly odd couple in the normal world. It felt more effective to turn this into a fairy tale in which the sexual power play is the most relatable thing in a preposterous, unfamiliar world." Was he worried about making a pro-BDSM or anti-BDSM film, I ask. "I think it's neither." As a writer, he says, he wants "to peer into the lives of couples who have profoundly different ways of sexually expressing themselves. That was a huge part of my motivation, but also the theatrics of bondage and discipline are so fascinating and it tends to reflect on the filmmaking process. It is a sexual act based on artifice and ritual. It allows one to explore facets of performance and the negotiation of power and there are so many ways one can go with it."
And so we come to 50 Shades. Has he seen it? "The only thing that interests me about 50 Shades is that it was edited by Lisa Gunning. Her work on the film would be the only selling point for me." "I was even accused of making The Duke to cash in on that film!" he adds. In terms of other films about sado-masochism, Belle De Jour seems to be the most directly related to the style and power structures explored in this film. "That was the only time I noticed a self-reflexive approach to sadomasochism in cinema," he says. "Perhaps it's been done elsewhere, but I'm not aware of it. Other films on that subject never broke the theatrical rules of it and seldom undermined the fantasy. Everyone knows that a fantasy of submission is theatre, but how often do you see a filmmaker break that spell?"
Text Sophia Satchell-Baeza
Film stills from Duke of Burgundy