duke-of-burgundy-001

By José Teodoro

Given the painstakingly retro stylings of its opening title sequence (with ostentatious credits for lingerie and perfumes, the latter attributed to one Je Suis Gizelle) and the imprimatur of producers Ben Wheatley, Andy Starke, and Amy Jump, there are at first reasons to suspect that The Duke of Burgundy will keep its tongue planted firmly in its powdered cheek. But for all its go-for-baroque humour and audiovisual equivalence to the purplest of prose, Peter Strickland’s film accrues an emotional intelligence that is almost entirely absent from the self-conscious dementia of Wheatley, Starke, and Jump’s pastiche-y midnight movies A Field in England (2013) and Sightseers (2012). As The Duke’s titles spread like mutant ivy across freeze-frames of a diminutive damsel cycling along idyllic forest paths towards a lushly appointed manor house, we hear a dream-pop chanteuse sing of “how people change,” and changeability will indeed prove the sticking point in this melodrama of BDSM stage-management and long-term love at the crossroads. While it utilizes and builds upon many of the same strategies as Strickland’s sunless neo-giallo Berberian Sound Studio (2012) to create something just as sculpted and enigmatic as its predecessor, The Duke is more mature, more risky, and, however unlikely it may seem, more personal.

The film’s first act deploys a series of ingenious reveals that are ingenious enough to make a second viewing a considerably different experience from the first. Based on the first several minutes, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Berberian’s Chiara D’Anna) could be total strangers, or mistress and long-suffering housemaid, as the former promptly proceeds to exploit the latter with humiliating, absurdly menial cleaning assignments. Only later do we understand the precise nature of the sadomasochistic role-play that is essential to this couple’s happy cohabitation, which has probably been going on for months if not years. Only later still do we understand that not only is Evelyn not a victim, but in fact the scenarist and costumer of this private theatre of domination and submission; it’s the bottom, not the top, who calls the shots here. Beginning in media res as Cynthia and Evelyn act out their elaborate erotic routines with deadpan conviction, the film eventually shows them relaxing together, whispering sweet nothings, and behaving in a manner that would be palatable to even the most vanilla of viewers.

Few outsiders appear to penetrate the cocoon of Evelyn and Cynthia’s domestic life, though a visit from a local artisan (Fatma Mohamed, in a striking Marilyn Monroe wig) called upon to construct a coffin-like bed compartment for Evelyn’s delighted confinement constitutes one of the film’s most memorable sequences. (When it becomes clear that the coffin can’t be constructed in time for Evelyn’s birthday, the artisan helpfully suggests a “human toilet” as an alternate gift, illustrating its function silently, and hilariously, through a series of meticulous manual semaphores.) Those glimpses we receive of the world beyond the women’s heritage home are confined to lectures at the local library on lepidoptera, a subject on which Cynthia is evidently an authority. Though not used as a one-to-one metaphor, the shadows that will soon enter Evelyn and Cynthia’s perverts’ paradise are telegraphed in The Duke’s hallucinatory images of butterflies, pinned, with labial wings spread, neatly contained in frames and displayed in seemingly infinite rows, their ornate patterning and careful classification rhyming with Evelyn’s carefully composed erotic scripts—written in an elegant calligraphic hand—to which Cynthia is meant to scrupulously adhere.

The film’s tasselled lampshades, patterned wallpaper and tile, shawls, skirts, and pastel lacy underthings, dearth of pre-moonwalk technology, petrified up-dos and ubiquitous presence of heavy eye shadow could place its tale in the ’60s—until the total absence of males (not to mention any allusion to a functioning economy) gradually leads one to accept its setting as no-time, no-place, a speculative realm of frilly girl-on-girl fantasy. The meta-gender dynamics that problematize, say, Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) have no place here—not only because a world without men doesn’t even accommodate the delineation of sexual preference, but because The Duke’s is a self-contained world operating under its own set of rules. While the soft-focus bucolic settings may invoke vintage Playboy spreads—and, I suppose, the director’s predilection for push-ins could be regarded as some sort of coded penetration—explicit hoochie-coochie takes a backseat to Strickland’s almost anthropological interest in restraint, punishment, and the deployment of a perfectly selected safe-word as techniques for sustaining a relationship. The Duke is committed to studying the pragmatics of organized perversion, and while some will point out the superficial debts to the sleaze opuses of Jess Franco, the shameless fetishism, amour fou, and emphasis on the mysteries of sexual function are far more indebted to Buñuel—an homage made overt by the inclusion of one “Dr. Viridiana” among the congregated lepidoptera enthusiasts.

Cinema Scope: There’s a scene in The Duke of Burgundy in which a lecturing lepidopterist explains that her presentation on the Grizzled Skipper will only be addressing species from this region, that she needn’t be held responsible for speaking to the full spectrum of butterfly life on earth. It seems to me that you could make a parallel disclaimer: The Duke is knowingly confining itself to its own very particular terrain, a sealed environment with its own rules, and how this environment relates to the rest of the world isn’t relevant to the story as told. Is the creation of self-contained worlds an ongoing interest?

Peter Strickland: It depends on the film. It was certainly the case with my last two. There’s an appeal there. I guess I’m lazy. I never trust the internet, so if I’m to research things I need to go to a library or meet people, whereas if it’s your world you don’t need to research anything. It’s a danger, of course, and something to consider in the future. It can easily become too much a comfort zone, creating a world you can control. The first draft of The Duke of Burgundy was actually set in the real world. There were males. The characters had jobs. But I’m not interested in how Cynthia and Evelyn make their money. It all felt too sociological. Especially being British, class always comes into it.

Scope: And gender, obviously.

Strickland: And gender. I’m not interested in Cynthia and Evelyn being gay—I mean in counterpoint to heterosexuals. It’s all women, so there is no counterpoint, which means you’re just focusing on the relationship, hopefully. I’m not interested in why Evelyn is the way she is. The film is all about how this couple functions, how they find compromise. I guess I like fantastical filmmaking. It’s what I like when I watch films. I was never a big fan of social realism.

Scope: I don’t know much about your theatre practice.

Strickland: That was a very long time ago. I found it satisfying when I was doing it. But I find it very difficult now to work in a fixed space. I love moving around.

Scope: I was just thinking that theatre does a similar thing. You invite people into a space, you leave lots of room in that space for things to happen. But you’re in that space, not any other, and, generally speaking, you don’t leave that space for the duration. Berberian Sound Studio most especially lures you into this sunless, sealed space from which you never escape until the credits roll.

Strickland: That’s true. It might feel claustrophobic, though that’s never my intention. I try to create that world, but it’s the details, the use of macrophotography in the case of The Duke, that I hope opens up worlds within that world. They blossom somehow. You find a portal you can travel through. Whether I succeed or not’s another thing, but as a director, when you walk into a space, if you’re lucky, you might get an hour to yourself to look through everything, hoping to find these extracurricular spaces within it.

Scope: When The Duke begins we’re already deep into what we might think of as the theatrical practice of this long-term relationship—so much so that it takes some time for us to understand that most of our initial impressions are wrong. The one who seems to be dominated, even exploited, is, in fact, writing the script that Cynthia and Evelyn are regularly, meticulously acting out. Again, on both diegetic and extra-diegetic levels, there are established rules to how this world works. It’s only as we move into the film’s second half that those rules begin collapsing—which feels as much like an act of liberation for you as it ultimately is for the characters. You literally burn the script.

Strickland: Yes, that’s another parallel with Berberian. We’re showing the mechanics of the filmmaking, which admittedly leaves you in danger of becoming a bit Brechtian. What I like about how this plays out in The Duke is that you can show those mechanics and still remain completely in the imagined world. You’re not taken outside of it when you see the lines written out. What I find interesting is how it can be incredibly erotic for Evelyn to be ordered to rub her mistress’ back, yet when Cynthia genuinely needs a backrub for medical reasons, Evelyn’s just not interested. Take an aspirin. So when the dynamic shifts, that same action becomes neutralized.

But what you’re saying about the burning of the script—it strikes me that there are some similarities between masochists and filmmakers regarding levels of control. The scenes in which Evelyn puts marker tape on the carpet so she can walk back and forth and look through the peephole: that’s an allusion to filmmaking. You might think that we left the tape there by accident, until you see it in close-up and realize that it’s part of their scenario. With your average masochist, if the dominant is just slightly off-script or off-key: [snaps fingers] screwed up, gone wrong. Let’s try again. It’s the same thing for many directors. I was really interested in the idea of performance in the context of a sexual relationship. This is a sadomasochistic relationship, but I believe these conditions extend to all aspects of our lives, whether it’s acting or general social conditioning, putting on a persona for someone. Who has to wear the trousers?

Scope: So this insistence on scripting things reaches its inevitable breaking point, both within the story and with regards to the narrative norms thus far adhered to by the film itself.

Strickland: The tension I like best is when they’re still clinging to their lines. It’s all falling apart, but they feel they have to stick to the script. What I like about repetition and role-play is that the lines haven’t changed, but because of your accrued knowledge, because the context has shifted so much, it doesn’t feel like repetition. At the beginning, when you hear Cynthia piss on Evelyn, you probably feel sorry for Evelyn. The next time you hear Cynthia piss on Evelyn, you feel sorry for Cynthia. It’s the same action, but our sympathies have shifted. And when Cynthia really punishes Evelyn instead of pretend-punishes Evelyn, it’s horrible in a non-sexual way.

Scope: And yet Evelyn endures it out of some devotion to the rules of engagement.

Strickland: It’s interesting you say that. It’s true that that’s her role and she just has to go through with it. Maybe she’s hoping it will get better.

Scope: Where’s the punch line?

Strickland: Exactly. I’m aware of the fact that what Evelyn’s into is very niche and maybe people will find it alienating, repellent. I don’t know. Hopefully by the end you feel that the film is not strictly about this particular activity. It’s about lovers responding to the cues they’re given.

Scope: The Duke is to some extent about sustaining a long-term relationship, and I think what’s negotiated can be applied to any long-term relationship. A dear friend once told me that every relationship reaches a point, usually several years in, where each member of the relationship has to forgive the other for being who they really are.

Strickland: That’s interesting. I like that. Because I feel that underneath the performance, underneath the meanness that bubbles up, there’s a tenderness between Cynthia and Evelyn. There’s trust.

Scope: To jump back for a moment to the burning of the script, to the radical shift in the film, when patterns and images and sounds take over: I get the impression that you’re never more in your happy space as a filmmaker as when you shed the vestiges of familiar narrative causality, as when the camera pushes into the velvety darkness of Cynthia’s vagina.

Strickland: That is indeed for me the potent part of the film. It’s very hard to talk about it without sounding sensationalist. Between the legs of the person you desire, that’s where all the light and darkness is. It sounds so pretentious, but what can I say? There’s immense power in that region. The control it can have over someone’s life. That’s how human nature is created. So it just made sense to begin the darkest, most anguished sequence of the film by going between her legs. From there we unravel all these anxieties. But are they Cynthia’s anxieties or Evelyn’s anxieties? Are they mixed up? That magnetism you’re talking about, it’s a bit like when the Millennium Falcon is sucked up into the Death Star. You can’t move away. You can’t go back. You have to surrender to the force. I’m trying to speak about it in a dignified manner, but it’s our most basic sexual needs that pull us toward that region.

Scope: And with no men around, penetration becomes at most figurative, a visual gesture, a camera gesture. We’ve been transported to a world where the erotic is guided by accoutrements, by hairspray, by hosiery, all these external things. Décor becomes an entryway into the psyche, grounds for co-dependency, intrinsic to all those things that make relationships complicated. So when we then slip between those legs, all the fetish objects sort of spasm and dissipate. Things get primal.

Strickland: It’s true. And it’s funny to talk about all this now that the film has premiered. I don’t write a synopsis when I start out. For me it’s a matter of having a period of time in which, over the course of many good days and many bad days, you just vomit the script out. Which is just to say that to hear you talk about these things, it’s only now, I mean right now, that this all makes some sort of sense. I mean, certain aspects of the structure are very carefully considered and planned, but other elements are just intuited in the writing. They follow a mood. Especially if I’m listening to music while I’m writing. It’s a tricky one, staying true to that while also maintaining respect for some kind of conventional logic.

Scope: Is music something that guides you when deciding how to marry sound and image? Because there are so many interesting sequences, particularly those that don’t use actual music, where there’s no obvious relationship between the textures of the sounds and the images. Do you have a strategy for that?

Strickland: It depends on the sequence. When I work with sound a lot of it is intuitive. Does this work? Am I physically responding to this? Is this too busy? We didn’t want to draw attention to sound to quite the same degree that we did with Berberian. A lot of the time we were stripping sounds away from the mix. With sound the sky’s the limit, but when you start editing images it’s more like problem-solving. You have a bunch of scenes that didn’t work for whatever reason. You have to work around that. Once you take one thing out you have to shift things around. There’s a thought process involved that’s sometimes not very intuitive. It’s about fitting pieces together.

Scope: We’ve been discussing the ways that both Berberian and The Duke establish a more or less familiar world, one that abides by recognizable causalities, before slipping into something more oneiric and non-narrative. Do you imagine a point in your work where you bypass the former and delve directly into the latter?

Strickland: Never say never, but I’d have doubts about fully submerging myself in something oneiric, only because I find a counterpoint of relative reality is needed for the non-narrative to fully come to life. That’s just a personal opinion in relation to my work, as there are plenty of highly effective films out there which are fully immersed in dream logic. At this point, I’m not sure if I could write a whole film as a dream. The struggle with conveying dreams is finding that zone that precariously comes from the contradiction of mental exertion and complete abandonment during the writing process. If it falls too far into exertion, what I write feels contrived; if it falls too far into abandonment, the association of ideas might be more potent, but things become bloated.

So it’s always a struggle in terms of how much or how little to will things on the page. I once started a dream diary, but as soon as I did that my dreams became incredibly boring. As soon as I gave up the diary, the dreams became interesting again. What I’ve found with my own dreams is that some of the most vivid ones were not superficially strange at all. Fairly ordinary settings and incidents, but what marked them as fantastical or nightmarish was the atmosphere, and that’s something that I’m always striving to capture. With varying degrees of success and failure.

Scope: Given that The Duke of Burgundy takes place in an all-female world—which is to say, one in which you, strictly speaking, don’t exist—did you ever find yourself trying to adjust your directorial approach so that it might somehow assume something closer to a “female gaze,” whatever that might mean to you?

Strickland: The gaze dilemma was always going to be an issue. No matter how hard I try to adopt a different gaze, my male gender remains an unavoidable gauge. In some ways it didn’t matter, as I was paying lip service to some sexploitation films, in which lesbian lovemaking became a genre trope. They were by nature disreputable, as they were mostly made by heterosexual males for a mostly heterosexual male audience to get off on. Of course, there are many other cinematic qualities in those films, but the core elements are the money shots. In that sense, I’m trying to embrace that disreputable or sleazy impulse, as the film we made clearly started as a Jess Franco tribute, though it ended up as something very different. There was that instant admission of sleaze with The Duke of Burgundy, and I think it’s best to be upfront about it—but within that context, why not try a different approach? I did have to question how I was looking at women in this. It would feel insincere to adopt a female gaze, but also too clichéd and redundant to refer to a lewd male gaze, even if in the spirit of homage. That almost feels like a lame excuse for being crude. What I could do is perhaps attempt to make my gaze less anatomical and less mechanical. Mood seemed a way to soften those male elements—lighting, camera movement, sound, etc.  It would feel arrogant to say I’m capable of adopting a female gaze, but I am aware of the pitfalls of the male gaze. All I could do was be less male rather than more female.

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine