He received critical acclaim for his film “Berberian Sound Studio,” and now British filmmaker Peter Strickland follows it up with “The Duke of Burgundy.” Now while the title might have you believing this is just another stiff period piece, it proves to be anything but that. It stars Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna as Cynthia and Evelyn, two women with a keen interest in butterflies who are involved in a sadomasochistic relationship. Despite what sounds like a harsh situation, Cynthia and Evelyn are very much in love with one another and enjoy playing the roles of the dominant and the submissive. But as Cynthia begins to yearn for their relationship to become a more normal one, Evelyn becomes increasingly obsessed with playing the submissive to where it becomes an addiction which cannot be easily fulfilled.
I got to speak with Strickland over the phone while he was doing press for “The Duke of Burgundy,” and we talked about how the movie is not what it appears to be. Strickland described how he achieved the movie’s beautiful look, what he wanted to see onscreen in regards to a sadomasochistic relationship, and of the challenges of shooting a six-minute scene in one take.
Ben Kenber: “The Duke of Burgundy” is a fascinating and mesmerizing movie, and what I liked about it was that while these two women are involved in a sadomasochistic relationship, it still feels like any other relationship in terms of how it runs on routine and gets run down by it as well.
Peter Strickland: Yeah. Ultimately what I found really interesting was that one of them is doing that out of the purest joy. There are two levels: one level is the joy of sex which makes us happy but also the joy of feeling desired I think especially as she’s (Cynthia) feeling that she’s getting older, but only have so much mileage to that. To me the film is about anybody who’s in a relationship with someone who has different needs and how you navigate those and how you find compromise, and I think coercion leads into it somehow. To be honest I was making the movie as a way to argue that afterwards or at least have discussions about who should compromise. Should it be one person doing things to somebody else that they find distasteful? It doesn’t matter what that thing is. It could be the most basic sexual acts. Or should the other person compromise and just withhold their desires and not express themselves? I don’t have the answers to that. I’m just showing this domestic drama really.
BK: Yeah, in any relationship those questions of who’s going to compromise the most comes up. In the end when you take away the sadomasochistic elements it really is like any other relationship.
PS: Yeah, I think so. And I think that, despite some of the harshness, there was a tenderness there as well. What I wanted to do was to start the first 10 minutes like your classic 70’s sexploitation film which would serve that kind of fantasy where they are all in character where the stern mistress is the stern mistress but then somehow unpeel that, and I want to see that stern mistress in her pajamas. I want to see her snoring at night, I want to see her get her lines wrong and miss her cues just to see what ticks underneath that somehow.
BK: This movie has such a beautiful look to it. It looks like it was shot on film, but I read that you actually shot it digitally. How did you make The Duke of Burgundy look like it was shot on film?
PS: That was Nicky (Nowland, the Director of Photography). He has literally been shooting on film for many, many years and he has been shooting stuff since the 60’s so he’s got a good feel for that. We were very close to shooting on 16mm but we just didn’t quite… We could’ve applied for more money, but the more money you get, the less control you have. So, we kept the budget around $1,000,000 pounds which meant I had complete control, but the consequence of having complete control is that we had to make cuts, so film was the first one to go. Nick can talk more about it in terms of the lenses he uses which were older lenses which I think were uncoated. That haze machine is quite important for him in terms of having this very diffuse quality to the whole movie. But also during the scenes where Evelyn is having her sort of excitable moments he was using doubles and mirrors so all that is done in camera, and I think we just did a lot of trial and error just moving the camera and moving the actors. Sometimes you have two doubles crossing into the mirror and crossing into another mirror and cover that up with the haze machine, and that really has a certain tasty look that’s reminiscent of the 70’s. We didn’t want to try too much to go down that route. Now you can make film looked distressed and so on, and that was the danger of sort of being a pastiche. We just wanted to do the most beautiful job we could, and I think the production design played a huge part in that and the costumes played a huge part as well.
BK: The movie kind of looks like it takes place in the 70’s, but in the end, it could be taking place in any time period. Was it your intention to leave the movie’s time period ambiguous?
PS: I wanted it to be kind of like a fairytale in that you don’t know where it is, you don’t know when it is, and you don’t know how in the hell they make their money to live in that place. It’s all those things that fairytales have been in a sense. Hopefully, you’re not worried about social elements of class or gender. There’s no counterpoint in that sense, so hopefully you’re just immersed in the dynamic of it. What was important as well was to be open to the fact that other people enjoy these practices so it doesn’t feel like this unusual activity. It’s kind of normalizing it so it’s not about treating it like it’s this odd thing. It could be any act in that sense, it’s just one person doesn’t like it, that’s all.
BK: I also got the impression that you designed “The Duke of Burgundy” to mislead viewers in a way starting with the movie’s title. Also, with the relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, it looks like Cynthia is the dominant one, but it turns out to be the other way around.
PS: Yeah. Very subconsciously, I knew people wouldn’t watch the film so I just tried to make it like this kind of tasteful period drama, but I think it was kind of like a perverse pleasure having one concession to a masculine presence especially given that, being a male director, you can’t avoid that element of it. I’ve seen a lot of films on that subject, not everything, but I think what often happened was they would prop up the fantasy of masochism and never show the dominant out of character. What I wanted to look at was the idea of the masochist controlling the whole scenario, and the whole paradox is controlling the situation where you are controlled by someone else. The whole paradox of the submissive controlling the dominant is that it is being dominated on her terms. It’s exploring all these dynamics I guess.
BK: One of my favorite scenes is where Cynthia and Evelyn are in bed, and you see on Cynthia’s face a yearning for something normal in their relationship. The acting by Sidse Babett Knudsen who play Cynthia is extraordinary. How did you go about directing that scene?
PS: That was a weird one. There wasn’t enough space for me in the bedroom, so I directed it from the bathroom. Normally I talk to the actors in person but there was just so many wires that I had to sort of shout to them from the bathroom. Obviously, we spoke about it prior to that. In one sense, it was quite easy to do because of the whole dynamics of it, but it was very difficult in another sense because we had to do it in one take. If you get one line wrong, you have to go again. There’s a weird kind of meta thing going on because obviously if one line goes wrong for Evelyn’s character it’s gone wrong for her, and if one line is wrong for me it’s gone wrong. Since there was this double pressure, I actually think it was quite easy to do that scene. It was quite tense because it was actually six minutes long, and even though we got it in one take at the very end it was just too long. It’s a weird thing because when you’re on set time just flies by, and when you look at it at in the edit room out of context you think, oh my god this is so long, it’s just not working anymore. So all that effort to do it in one take was just kind of wasted; we had to do it like a sort of insert cut. But yeah, that scene kind of sums up the film: to being ordered to order someone. It sounds kind of preposterous but it’s really an interesting part of human nature.
BK: The music score by Cat’s Eyes is wonderful and sounded very unique. What was it like working with the band on the score?
PS: I loved working with them. They are really, really, really talented and woefully overlooked. Hopefully that will change now. They come from very different disciplines. Rachel (Zeffira) comes from a classical background and Faris (Badwan) comes from this rock ‘n roll, experimental background, and they just complement each other really well. They’re completely fine if it’s not right; they’ll just keep going. The main thing at the beginning is just setting them up for the right mood and just playing the music. In hindsight, I feel a bit guilty sometimes that maybe I’ve gotten too attached to some piece of music, but I think it was setting the mood for them and discussing the instruments they would use. I remember I put Mozart’s Requiem over that long montage towards the end, and I knew I shouldn’t do it because it’s such an obvious piece of music and everyone’s used it. Then Rachel just came on and said, “I don’t care. I can just write my own requiem.” It was just an amazing piece and I didn’t miss the Mozart at all. I assume that they will be asked a lot more to do soundtracks. I bought their first album in 2011 and it just blew me away. They’re the first band that made me say, “Okay this is The Carpenters if they were doing music now without any kind of ironic take or pastiche.” I highly recommend the first album they did. I was really, really lucky that they said yes (to working with me).
BK: It’s compelling to think that the use of butterflies in this movie serves as a metaphor for the relationship between the two women, but it’s my understanding that you never actually intended that to be the case.
PS: No, not really. I’m not a big fan of putting the audience through that (laughs). For me, it was a framework for the film. Obviously, there are connections you can make, but you can do that with anything if you wanted to because of the metamorphosis and the cataloging of the insects. But there’s something about the absence of these insects when they’re emigrating and their hibernating which really added to the atmosphere of this very autumnal love story where you just feel it might be coming to an end. And that last lecture that Cynthia gives with the mole cricket going into hibernation really connected with Evelyn’s dormant desires. So, you really feel this extreme hibernation that is coming.
Thanks to Peter Strickland for taking the time to talk with me. “The Duke of Burgundy” is now available to own and rent on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.