The Duke of Burgundy, has, in fact, nothing to do with wine. It’s a sadomasochistic passion play between two gorgeous females (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna), shot in the lushly naughty style made popular by The Lickerish Quartet’s Radley Metzger.
Peter Strickland may not have his name on any of the films that made our list of the 100 best sex scenes of all time, but the director has probably seen them all. A hardcore cinephile who’s made a name for himself by riffing on the sleazy European movies of his childhood, Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) isn’t just a rising filmmaker with limitless potential—he’s also a walking encyclopedia of salacious screen sex.
The Duke of Burgundy, his elegantly erotic (and surprisingly moving) new drama, is the work of someone with a genuine appreciation for the beauty of B movies. An ode to the likes of Radley Metzger and Jess Franco, the film drops us into a mysterious world without men, where Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a prim butterfly collector, struggles to keep up with the increasingly complex S&M role-play scenarios of her partner, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). Dreamily shot and pungent with atmosphere—there’s a perfume credit in the opening titles—The Duke of Burgundy develops its kinky premise into a heartbreakingly honest story about the performative nature of love. Time Out sat down with Strickland to discuss bondage and making movies.
I have to imagine that some of your influences for The Duke of Burgundy were a bit kinky.
I think the deepest influence was Buñuel. The obvious one there is Belle de Jour, but it's really just the way he tackles subjects with a very laid-back style that’s somehow incredibly caustic as well. Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches was a huge influence, too. But there’s this short film called “Mano Destra” by Cleo Übelmann that’s sort of like Chris Marker doing a bondage film: just these very still shots of one woman tying up another woman. That somehow fed its way this. What I wanted to do was peer behind these stereotypes and find a dominant character who’s not always in character, who doesn’t always hit her cues.
Despite the specificity of the role playing between Cynthia and Evelyn, there’s something quite universal about it as well. I think that anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship will be able to relate to the dynamic between these two women.
I wanted to deemphasize the fact that they’re gay, not as a means of broadening the film out to an audience, but because the story exists in this strange utopia. It’s not about acceptance or rejection. I wanted the mood for this film to be: What’s the big deal? In a way, it’s this ideal world where that’s just not an issue at all. The audience is freed to focus on the power dynamics between Cynthia and Evelyn.
So having a same-sex couple helped you cut to the chase?
Yeah. You don’t have to focus on their gender or how they got their money. It’s just about: What happens when two people have such different desires? What if one person wants to work in Pittsburgh and the other wants to stay in New York? My only judgment is that it has to be consensual, because if it’s consensual then I don’t give a damn what people do. It’s this thing of compromise in relationships, which is something every couple has unresolved conflicts about. How much have I been emotionally blackmailed into doing something? That’s where it becomes troublesome.
The film is rooted in a strong sense of the theatrical, but it never throws the viewer entirely out of the sensual world that you’ve created for them.
I feel there’s something very natural about sadomasochism as a catalyst through which to explore the relationship between performance and power. Performing is quite a scary thing, even when you’re doing it for someone you love. Cynthia knows that if she gets one word slightly wrong or if she mispronounces something, Evelyn is going to get turned off. So it was really fascinating for me to have these repetitions built into the film. The rituals don’t change, but your perception of them does. Most people watching Cynthia pissing into Evelyn’s mouth probably feel sorry for Evelyn the first time, but the second time it happens, you feel sorry for Cynthia. So it’s not the act of urination which is the issue—it’s about any act that one partner finds distasteful.
Speaking of human toilets, this might be the first film to include a credit for “human toilet consultant.” How much S&M research did you do to anchor some of this to the real world?
In terms of sadomasochism, I’m not like [Fifty Shades of Grey actor] Jamie Dornan—I didn’t need to visit all of these places, because I was making a fictional world. I have some experience with it because of the filmmaking background that I have. I started 21 years ago and the first filmmaker I met was M.M. Serra, who was making sadomasochistic films with women and John Zorn doing the soundtracks. Those are great. And then the first cameraman I ever worked with was Ethan Mass, who did a film called The Elegant Spanking with Maria Beatty and Rosemary Delain. I worked with Bruce La Bruce in Skin Flick, so it was kind of abnormal for me to be involved in vanilla, heterosexual stuff back then.
Both of your lead actors are phenomenal, but they only met once before you started shooting. Was their unfamiliarity with one another something that you were able to work to your advantage?
It did, in hindsight. I didn’t want to go straight into the sex. There was a lot of tension in the first week. It was all very new to them, but it did work to our advantage. By the time they started to get to the intimate scenes, both of the women were actually quite relaxed. It’s always weird on a film set. It’s so…banal. You’re bickering amongst each other, you’re always fixing things. So when you’re focusing a camera on someone’s intimate areas, it doesn’t feel as if you’re doing it. Weirdly it was the scenes with the arguments where there was a greater feeling of stress and needing to get it right. The hardest scenes for actors are always the expositional scenes, the everyday scenes. Those are a nightmare.
Chiara D’Anna’s voice is woven into the soundtrack like an instrument. She strikes a hypnotic balance between the fragility of someone speaking their second language, and the control of someone who is a master manipulator.
A lot of that stemmed from my superficial need to emulate the voices that were found in those films from the '70s, which were dubbed. Chiara will hate me for saying this, but she doesn’t sound English enough and she doesn’t sound Italian enough, so she had that perfect “nowhere” accent I needed. I remember meeting someone for the Cynthia part very early on, before I met Sidse. I try to be very upfront with actors and say, “Look, this is what I’ll be asking you to do in the film.” So I told this other actress all about the intimate scenes, and she was totally fine with them. But as soon as I asked, “Do you mind if we dub your voice?” she screamed at me. Actors are very sensitive about their voices being dubbed!
In your experience, is filmmaking more of a sadistic experience, or a masochistic experience?
I think it’s both. I love the parallels between my script for The Duke of Burgundy and the role-play script that Evelyn writes for Cynthia. There’s a relationship between my marker tape that I lay down for the actors, and Evelyn’s marker type that she lays down for Cynthia. Evelyn is directing Cynthia all the time. But yeah, I think it has less to do with the masochism or the submission so much as it does the control element. What I love about masochism is the dichotomy of it: It’s about controlling your control—controlling somebody else’s control of you. That’s such a delicious thing.
The Duke of Burgundyis now playing.