The Duke of Hazard:
An Interview with Peter Strickland
by Ashley Clark
At the age of 41, Berkshire-born Peter Strickland has established himself as one of Britainâs most intriguing, unpredictable filmmakers. His five-year feature film career has thus far included a low-budget revenge thriller (Transylvania-shot debut Katalin Varga), a giallo-inflected mystery (Berberian Sound Studio), and a concert movie capturing an extravagant BjĂ¶rk concert (Biophilia). His latest offering, The Duke of Burgundyânamed, enigmatically, after a rare breed of butterflyâis the sensuous, lived-in tale of an embattled sadomasochistic relationship between lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her apprentice, Evelyn (Chiara DâAnna). I sat down with Strickland the morning after the filmâs world premiere at last yearâs Toronto Film Festival to discuss S&M, Euro-sleaze, and serial music, among other things.
Reverse Shot: How do you find the experience of traveling around the world with a film?
Peter Strickland: The difference in responses between countries is incredible. My first film (Katalin Varga) was a revenge filmâwe shot it in Romania with ethnic Hungarians. The Germanic audiences, all the way down to Slovenia, they didnât like it: âWhat is the point? Why is she taking revenge after all these years? Just move on, rebuild your life.â But the Balkan countries, like Serbia, Greece, they were like, âYes! Revenge! Destiny! Even if it ends in tears, just go for it!â Being half-Balkan myself, thatâs interesting. Itâs so funny that a film can say so much about its audience. And this one, especially with all of its kink, well, I certainly know which countries will not like itâŠ though I wonât name them.
RS: The Duke of Burgundy is not a prescriptive work, with regard to how the viewer should react. Youâre thrown in with no expositionâŠ
Strickland: That was so important to meâprobably the most important thing. Many films Iâd seen would try to explain why a character was a certain way, and I didnât want to go there. People are the way they are. The point was not why this woman has these desires, itâs how you work that into a relationship with someone who doesnât have those desires. It doesnât matter that sheâs into niche activity. It could be very conventional sex acts that someone finds repellent. What do you do when you have a need that your partner finds repellent? Who is compromising? You giving into that person and performing these acts for them? Or you not performing them and the other person suppressing their own desires to make you happy? Whoâs suffering the most? Thatâs what I find fascinating. I imagine many people in the audience will not be into this stuff. I knew that. I expect them to laugh, but I certainly donât want to laugh at people who have those desires. I have the greatest respect. Iâm laughing at the situations that arrive.
RS: And these situations are not always necessary explosive or explicitâŠ
Strickland: When you enter a sexual relationship with someone, saying ânoâ is absolute, but when you know someoneâs desires and youâve gone along with them for a certain period, you have this fatigue, and it can be quite difficult. I was quite mindful of not being âforâ sadomasochism or âagainst" it. Iâm just observing it. I was interested in the practicalities of enacting a fantasy; any fantasy, as much as the practicalities of [Toby Jonesâs character] Gilderoy doing Foley work in Berberian Sound Studio. Itâs kind of ridiculous, but most human activities behind closed doors are ridiculous. These poor celebritiesâŠ I feel so sorry for them when theyâre âexposed,â with all their nude shots and so on. I find it incredibly mean and hypocritical when people laugh. Itâs human nature to have these private things that can only work in a private situation. If you put a magnifying glass on that it becomes funny. I wanted to make a tender film that has a lot of affection for both characters. I was fascinated by the shifts in power.
What I find fascinating specifically about sadomasochism is the performance aspect of it. This leads into parallels between directors and actors; directors being controlling. We tried to explore that in the film: âIâm sticking to my lines.â In a masochistâs perception of a line, itâs all about the delivery. If thereâs no conviction in the voice . . . well, itâs the same for a director.
RS: Youâre careful to increasingly inject these mundane details into the relationship, like Cynthia simply wanting to relax and wear pajamas, much to Evelynâs chagrin.
Strickland: Well . . . if someone asks you to dress up as a fireman every night, eventually you just want to take the uniform off, get in your tracksuit bottoms. Itâs that idea of performance, and wanting to get out of putting on a persona; it goes out of the sexual realm and into every element of life. The two of us speaking now are putting on a kind of persona; I think we all have different personas. Iâm stating the obvious, but there is a pressure for us to do it all the time.
RS: In terms of personae being played out ad infinitum, your film reminded me of Caraxâs Holy Motors. It has Denis Lavant as a guy who, in each scene, plays a different character, a role, and as the day wears on he becomes more and more exhausted. The role-playing seems to just wear him down.
Strickland: You know what, I havenât seen it! I bought it, but have not watched it yet.
RS: So who were your key influences when making this film?
Strickland: Fassbinder, definitely. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was a big, big influence. Jess Franco too. What was interesting about Franco was that in my initial meeting with [production company] Rook Films we said, âLetâs remake his film Lorna The Exorcist.âThat was a very different time. Berberian was in the flea marketârejected at Berlin, rejected at Cannes, so I thought, âThatâs it. Iâm finished. Iâm washed up.â Especially for a second film, I thought, âOkay, I blew it.â And they came in with this offer and said, âLetâs do it for ÂŁ20k.â I thought, âWhy the hell not?â And then we got to thinking we could do a low-budget Franco tribute. Over that period, as always, the budget went up and the script changed. It was quite explicit at first. We wanted to take these core elements of the masochism, the women lovers, but somehow as a human being you bring an emotional aspect to it, which genre cinema sometimes shuts out. It was about letting a bit of sunlight into that boxed world, and letting those characters come to life. In that type of genre cinemaâthe sex film, Euro-sleaze, whatever you want to call itâthose dominant women and men are inherently dominant. I havenât read 50 Shades of Grey, but I assume that Christian Grey is inherently dominant. Heâs not putting on an act for his lover. But for the vast majority of cases where these scenarios are happening, the masochist wouldnât want a genuine dominant, that would be too scary: a dominant is someone whoâs just being used as a puppet. Just peeling off that mask and showing a reluctant dominatrix was what I wanted to do.
RS: Where did you shoot the film?
RS: The accents are all over the place.
Strickland: Euro-pudding . . . Euro-goulash!
RS: . . . but in a great way, in that you never know where you are. I was getting an Italian vibe.
Strickland: Well, Chiaraâs Italian. This is the anti-UKIP [hard-right, anti-immigration UK political party] film! Itâs got an Italian, a Romanian, a Belgian, a Hungarian, and a Danish woman. Five different nationalities, and not a single British person. I just didnât want to make it specific. Itâs the same as with the gender, the jobsâI didnât want people to worry about where it is. I love Pinocchio, and there is this magical sense of a middle-European place and youâve got no idea where it is, or when it is. BuĂ±uel was another big reference: Belle de jour and Tristana in particular.
RS: Thereâs deliberately no technology, or signifiers of a time and place. Actually, the only technology is a human toilet . . .
Strickland: Handmade! It could be set in the future though, when oil has run outâŠ
RS: Can you talk about the heavily stylized opening credits sequence? I found that particularly striking.
Strickland: Julian House [at creative house Intro] did that. My starting point was the credits sequence for Michael Reevesâs Witchfinder General. It has these freeze frames, then it goes into a tint; I think thatâs something that happened a fair bit in the sixties and seventies, and I hadnât seen that done in a while. I guess Iâm another tragically nostalgic director. I love that style, itâs very evocative, and it transports me, pulls me into the film. Alongside Matyas [Fekete], the editor, we gave Julian a template. We found the shots we wanted, weâd freeze them, and it was up to Julian to fill in the freezes. We wanted to go fairly simple with it. We didnât want to go too crazy.
RS: I love the scenes in the lecture hall at the lepidopterist conference, where thereâs a mannequin in the back, and everybody is extremely statuesque. It reminded me of Terence Donovanâs video for Addicted to Love by Robert Palmer.
Strickland: Oh! I know the video, interesting. Thatâs funny. That didnât occur to me.
RS: And when did you decide to have an all-female cast? There are literally no men in it at all. Itâs very unusual, even refreshing, for a feature film.
Strickland: Itâs funny, you say ârefreshingâ as an audience member, but when youâre shooting it you crave male company in the evenings!
RS: I can picture you sat there in the corner, on your own, eating your steakâŠ
Strickland: Itâs not good to have one gender all day long, male or female. You crave a mix. Weâd have boysâ nights out in the evenings, and the girls could just stay away! [laughs] We had a lot of women in the crew as well, and the intimate nature of itâbeing a male directorâwe wanted to make the actors as comfortable as possible. At least the first draft had men in it. It was set in a very different world; it was set in a city, they had jobs. But I wanted to strip everything away. I didnât want to worry about where they got their money from; I wanted to make it like a fable.
RS: Have you anticipated criticismâperhaps for a perceived voyeurism or male fantasy?
Strickland: I was conscious, on some levelthat, as a male, I was going to be attacked. I felt having it all-female didnât make it a lesbian film; not that Iâm against thatâbut I didnât want it to be about that. Aesthetically, I had issues with a male as a dominant and a submissive. That didnât feel right. The purest thing would have been to have two men; I could have got away with that, but Iâm doing that for another film. I donât know when weâll do it, but I have plans for an all-male film. I just got into it, in a way. You have to be careful here, because you could end up in a scenario like The Worm That Turned [a sketch from 1980 BBC show The Two Ronnies in which women rule England]. It could be a fetish thing. The trap would have been to have beautiful young women with long legs . . . this kind of heterosexual fantasy; that wouldnât have worked.
RS: Abdellatif Kechiche recently came under fire for his portrayal of a lesbian relationship in Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Strickland: I havenât seen the film yet. But . . . anyone would. Iâm bound to be under fire as well. It just happens, itâs the way it is. But I want to tell that story. Iâve only done a few films, but I know from the last two that whatever you do someoneâs going to slag you off. I was happier with an all-female world. It removes a sociological aspect from the film. Itâs a counter to it; if there are males involved, it becomes âI am attracted to the same gender.â
RS: Sound is hugely important in your work. In Berberian it was embedded into the subject matter, but in this film too, sound design, and the musical score from Catâs Eyes, are so important to the tone and feel. Can you talk about the importance you place on sound?
Strickland: It depends on the film. Itâs all about serving the atmosphere of what youâre doing. I could easily envisage doing a film with minimal sound design and almost no music. I love Joanna Hoggâs films and they work perfectly without music. Itâs just a question of when is that a gimmick or contrived? In Hoggâs films it completely serves what sheâs putting out there. Burgundy absolutely needed music. I think we spent more time taking sounds away than putting them on. I think a lot of sound design is about eliminating things, making it less busy.
RS: I spoke to Johnnie Burn last year about his work as sound designer on Under the Skin, and he talked about peeling it back as much as possible.
Strickland: Iâm glad you said that, because people donât really talk about that much. A huge chunk of that work, which is very time-consuming, is to peel things away. Itâs very gratifying; things breathe more and sounds work better when theyâre in isolation. There was no intention to draw attention to ourselves. With Berberian there was, absolutely, given the subject matter. With this one we tried to make something evocative, moody, and pared back. A lot of the effort goes into tracking down field recordings. I get into arguments a lot about this because a field recording is still a live recording, but the difference is youâve looked for it. You havenât just gone through a fucking database and clicked on your mouse; youâve actually gone out of your flat, to visit someone, youâve made a phone call to hear recordings that havenât been off the shelf. You feel it if somethingâs off the shelf. Well, I donât know if the audience does, but the film has to please me. I really need original sound recordings. So we just contact people whoâve done great stuff. We just incorporate it into the mix.
With Catâs Eyes, I was a big fan. I purchased their first [self-titled] album just after we started shooting, and Iâd listen to it a lot in the evenings after work. I remember thinking they sounded very suitable for that world. A lot of the conversation was about the instruments theyâd use. Rachel [Zeffira] has a background in classical music, and Faris [Badwan] has a rock ânâ roll sensibility and experimental stuff; he could warp those sounds. I really love what theyâve done.
RS: Are you generally a fan of repetition in music?
Strickland: Iâm a big Spacemen 3 fan. Yeah, people like Steve Reich, and this band from the â80s called Loopâthe name says it all really. I love repetition, I love it in cinema. A lot of my inspiration comes from musical structure when Iâm writing. I remember when I first heard repetitive music and you think these guys are being lazy, but when you get into it, it has a very accumulative quality. It just transports you. And what I look for in film and music is to be transported. Thatâs just my personal taste; I love to be thrown into another world.
RS: And thereâs this idea of modulation, too. Whether itâs krautrock or Fela Kuti or Arthur Russell, it loops, but then youâre extra attentive to when it does finally change. I thought of this in your film, where there is a base level and you keep coming back to the same themes, but there are tiny, startling modulations along the way. Actually in this respect your film reminded me in some ways of Chantal Akermanâs Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
Strickland: Oh! Joanna Hogg does these film nights in London, called A Nos Amours! I think sheâs screened it there, though Iâve not seen it. But there was a great film series by Phil Niblock called The Movement of People Working. Niblock comes from this tradition of drone music. Heâs recording a lot of close-ups of people doing hand work and agricultural work, set to these very intense drones. You feel a bit guilty watching it, as a middle-class person watching these people laboring, thereâs a bit of guilt going on, but as a texture, as something which accumulates, itâs very powerful. Also, Iâm gonna steal that word âmodulationâ from you!