The Duke of Burgundy, which has become a bit of a film-festival darling in the last several months, follows the ups and downs of a relationship between two women, Cynthia (Sidse Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who practice sadomasochism in their sprawling manor house. Despite the potentially salacious subject matter, the movie is quite restrained in its approach, though it is still lushly produced and shot. We sat down with director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) at last year’s AFI Fest to discuss the film, the representation of sadomasochism in cinema, and opulent Hungarian mansions.
Movie Mezzanine: Tell me about the origins of The Duke of Burgundy:
Peter Strickland: The starting point was meeting with Andy Stark, the producer. He wanted to remake Lord of the Exorcist, but I thought it might be a bit boring to do a remake. So we looked at that and other Jess Franco films and I started to wonder about how, when you see sadomasochism in those films, or in general in cinema, it’s propping up a fantasy. The characters are always in character. You never see the dominant partner in their pajamas. You never see someone getting it wrong and missing their cue. Everything’s on cue, everyone’s in character. I thought we could unpeel that. We could show the real dynamic behind it, how the masochist is pulling the strings. And we could show the parallels between that and filmmaking. You get your lines right, but you’re not delivering them with conviction. You’re not walking on the marker tape on the floor, so your partner can’t see you through the keyhole. It’s about putting on a persona, being someone you’re not. It is a film about acting, in a sense. With sadomasochism, there has to be consent, but within that parameter of consent, you have coercion and compromise. And how do you navigate around that? I’m not trying to judge either character. If they were in one of those genre films, they’d both be into the same kink. It wouldn’t be so interesting to me. But one of them clearly isn’t into it, and does it to give the other joy, or because she’s pressured into it. There is consent, but there’s coercion as well. And doesn’t everyone coerce their partners, whether it’s in the bedroom or in life?
MM: There are only women in the film, no men—not even as extras. What’s the reason behind that?
PS: I toyed a lot with trying to work men into it. Perhaps have a man as the dominant and a woman as the submissive. Which, if I were a woman, I could have done it and stood up for it. But for a male director, having a male in that role—it’s tricky. It can send out a very distorted signal for those who want to see it. The most honest thing I could have done was to have two men. Perhaps that would have been the purest option. But the more I thought about it, the more I believed it had to be women, because of the genre. I was coming from Jess Franco’s films initially, which almost always had female lovers. That was a stereotype of those Euro-sleaze films. I wanted to take that stereotype, and sadomasochism, and take it into a domestic context, somewhere quite tender. The first draft was two female lovers, but it had men in it. Somehow, taking men away focused it only on the dynamics of the relationship, and not on them being gay. Because there’s no counterpoint to them, there’s no social acceptance or rejection.
MM: Can you talk a little about your influences? About those “Euro-sleaze” films.
PS: It’s a very interesting period of cinema that’s often disregarded. Some of those films are really bad, of course, but there are some really great ones as well. Even the bad ones have moments of brilliance, of complete poetry. Because the producers only cared about the sex scenes, they didn’t give a damn about what was in between. Normally, when a film is made, people want everything to be scrutinized, but I’m sure that at that time, they didn’t care. And that allowed the directors to do what they wanted. And you get this inadvertent strangeness that maybe, I say, maybe, wasn’t intentional. Some of those films are these remarkable portals to stuff that I’ve never really seen before anywhere else.
MM: Was it difficult to get funding? The film doesn’t seem like an easy pitch.
PS: Maybe it’s that old chestnut “sex sells,” but it was the easiest film to fund. And I didn’t expect that. I thought it would sound like a sleazy film, one inspired by films that people don’t really know about or want to know about. But we got a lot of support, and that was a very nice surprise for me. We got a lot of freedom to do it how it needed to be done. But we purposefully had a low budget so that we could get that freedom. When the budget goes up, it gets harder to keep control. I haven’t really worked on that level, and it’s something I’d be cautious of. I’m not saying never [to making a bigger production,] but I certainly don’t regret keeping the budget low on this film at all.
MM: Like in Berberian Sound Studio, the use of sound in this film is exquisite. You seem to pay more attention to it than the average filmmaker. Tell me about your approach.
PS: It’s such a fundamental part of cinema. Everyone gives it attention, but maybe their emphasis is different. I think in most films, even with a really spectacular sound design, a sound is illustrating an action, whether it’s this spectacular explosion or this spacecraft. It’s not expressing a state of mind. And that’s what I find really interesting in sound: that it can convey a mood or the way someone feels. I like to look at the sounds that maybe you ignore most of the time, but if you emphasize them or emphasize the lack of them, people notice. A classic example is air conditioning. You don’t think about it, but as soon as it turns off, you recognize its absence. We did a lot like that in Berberian Sound Studio. But with The Duke of Burgundy, I didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves with the sound. I felt there was no reason for it. In Berberian, there was. Obviously, we spent a lot of time on it, but not to make it bombastic. We just tried to make it quiet and central, but that still takes time. And taking away the sounds takes time. You look at it and say, “Why is this not working?” It sounds like a cliché, but it’s like cooking. Sometimes, the best dishes are made with very few elements—simply pairing up the right two things will make something that works.
MM: The mansion that serves as the movie’s main setting is gorgeous. Where’d you find it, and how much of what’s in the film is “as it is” versus what your crew had to create?
PS: It was a total mess. It was a bombsite. It stank as well. When I saw it, I went, “How the hell are we going to dress this?” But I’m not a production designer. Our production designer Pater Sparrow found a way to do it all, and on a low budget. For example, it was too expensive to re-tile the bathroom. So he scrubbed down these awful, ugly, skanky white tiles. Then, on his computer, he created these designs and made them into stickers. So the elaborate bathroom tiling is all stickers on the plain tiles. He was really resourceful. He made all the wallpaper, too. It was all from scratch. It was a massive house, but we only used a quarter of it. It belonged to János Kádár, who was a leader of Hungary during the Communist period. We didn’t know about that until after we’d booked it. It’s extremely opulent. And absurd! How the hell do these characters afford it when they don’t work? Their job is their hobby. But hopefully, because it’s so absurd, you accept it quickly. I do, anyway. It’s so preposterous that I just go along with it.
MM: Insects appear prominently in the movie. Evelyn collects them, displays them, she’s part of some kind of entomologist society. How’d that come into play?
PS: The insects serve the atmosphere, especially texture. I didn’t want them to be a metaphor. But I liked the idea that autumn is coming, that they’re all kind of dying, renewing, hibernating, immigrating—especially the mole cricket, which hibernates in this kind of tomb, almost similar to Evelyn’s box. There’s this autumnal sadness, where the only insects you see are the ones encased. They’re all catalogued. There’s this obsessive detail to it. During the dream sequence, having moths invade the screen seemed like a very strong way to convey Evelyn’s anxieties. But to be honest, this was the hardest thing about the film, in terms of worrying about the audience. Are they going to think too much about the insects, force metaphor into it? With some films I’ve seen, if I didn’t get it, I’d feel really frustrated. But I think you don’t have to get it here. There’s nothing to get. The insect collecting is what they do. It’s their hobby.
MM: Was there any reluctance on the part of your two lead actresses towards the material?
PS: I think it was very strange for both of them: complete strangers having to work in a different country. More so for Sidse, because she’d never worked with me before. So I was untested in her eyes. The subject matter for her was risky, given that she was in this very high-profile drama series, Borgen. I think it was brave of her to do it. The script spoke to her in some way. She certainly didn’t do it for the money. [Laughs] With actors, you have to get on with it, really. You talk through the characters with them. It’s always hard, because they have different ways of working, different ways of achieving their goal. Some people are really methodical about knowing the script. Others don’t give a damn about the script and are more spontaneous. Some are much more movement orientated, some are more word orientated, and some are more reactive.
MM: Do you know that much about real sadomasochistic practice? How important was representational accuracy to you?
PS: It’s artificial, so that didn’t really matter to me. It was more about just following logically how these things operate. I could never portray that world completely accurately, really. That’s for the audience to judge. I did ask for some feedback from a lesbian couple. They never finished reading the script. They were bored by it. [Laughs] Of course, I’m very curious as to how actual sadomasochists might receive it. It’d be awful if everyone said, “This is bullshit.” But you’ve got to follow what’s in your head.