Interview: Peter Strickland

“I genuinely thought my career had prematurely ended.” It is April 2012, and British filmmaker Peter Strickland’s second film, the unconventional horror Berberian Sound Studio, has been rejected by both Cannes and Berlin film festivals. He has no distribution deal. The future looks bleak. Defeated, he begins work on a remake on Jesús Franco’s 1974 erotic fairytale Lorna the Exorcist, expecting nothing to come of it. “What was liberating about that month or so of perceived failure,” he says, “was that I had nothing to lose. I didn’t feel I was writing to any expectation.”

You certainly sense this unabashed freedom in The Duke of Burgundy, the eventual product of that low ebb. (Like his earlier film, it too was rejected by Cannes, perhaps simply too strange to risk ruffling feathers on the Croisette.) A sadomasochistic love story unlike any other, the film’s initial B-movie inspiration ultimately became a “springboard to explore something quite domestic”, as Strickland describes it.

Just as Berberian Sound Studio lightly homages Italian giallo horrors, before emphatically becoming its own strange and disturbing beast, so The Duke of Burgundy doffs the occasional cap to 1970s B-movie cinema (note the charmingly retro opening credits) before transcending to more complex planes.

Dispensing with the usual whips and straps of S&M, Strickland instead explores the dynamics of a submissive relationship, and the burden of conflicting desires. The tangled, tender affair between two women, Evelyn and Cynthia, elevates the film beyond any sort of glib pastiche.

“I wanted to begin The Duke of Burgundy as if we’re inside Evelyn’s fantasy and see Cynthia conform to that functional ideal,” Strickland says. “But how about letting the air out of that fantasy and showing an ice queen snoring in her baggy pyjamas, and, most importantly, an ice queen unable to come to terms with that prescribed persona? How much can one do for a lover when the act leaves them cold?”

The role-playing and showmanship of such a relationship seem well-suited for Strickland’s playful approach to reality. Similar tactics are found in Berberian Sound Studio, where reality and sound-edited-fantasy often blur. What is it about deconstructing artifice that fascinates him?

“I can’t deny that artifice and the process of creation is a wonderful mystery despite the fact that showing it is demystifying. The theatrics of sadomasochism are inherently self-reflexive, but what’s so exciting about that is that it’s also inherently part of the drama of the film, so one can explore that kind of artifice without ever pushing the audience too much out of the filmic dimension. I didn’t want to get all Brechtian on the audience, but still wanted to explore these impulses and lapses in performance.”

In particular, reality takes a heady topple in the film’s third act, when a bewildering virtual flip-book of butterflies bombard the frame. “It seemed like a very charged image to have moths invading the screen to convey this silent anguish or anxiety”, Strickland says of the sequence. It recalls the work of film artist Stan Brakhage (“a big influence”), who would physically attach pressed moths and butterflies to film strip, creating a film without a camera.

Ultimately, for all its retro stylings and experimental gusto, The Duke of Burgundy is a simple tale of romance. Yet, bizarrely, despite a total lack of nudity, swearing, or violence throughout, the BBFC have decided to rate it ‘18’. Strickland does not seem too concerned – “it’s not as if I had a teenage audience in mind when I wrote the script” – but worries whether there are double standards in film censorship. “If you really want to discuss perversity, then it is perverse that violence is considered more acceptable than a loving couple pleasuring each other.”

But why call it The Duke of Burgundy? To some, the film’s title is another confusing piece of an often impenetrable puzzle. As one baffled YouTube commenter lamented: “A duke would be a dude, not one of these chicks, plus none of these people are speaking French. Helloooo, Burgundy is in France. Fire your research team, Hollywood, and do this one over.”

The research team needn’t worry: the Duke of Burgundy is in fact a species of butterfly, the Hamearis lucina, of the kind featured heavily in the film. Strickland says it was a “fairly intuitive” choice. “I wanted some reference to Lepidoptera in there and went through other names, such as ‘True Lover’s Knot’, but that felt on the nose. In hindsight, I wish I called the film ‘Cabbage White’.” Perhaps, with a name like that, Cannes might have reconsidered the application.

First appeared in The Skinny, February 2015 issue.