Even for the lucky few entranced by Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, an elaborate giallo homage in which Toby Jones’ foley engineer has an apparently psychotic break while recording effects for an Italian horror movie, the premise of Strickland’s followup film, The Duke Of Burgundy, sounded a tad peculiar. A portrait of a lesbian BDSM relationship in the style of a Jess Franco softcore movie, interspersed with the meetings of an all-female entomologists’ society? Um, sure? But the result, while not easy to describe (nor, based on Duke’s tepid theatrical release, to market), is genuinely wondrous, an enrapturing and cumulatively heartbreaking sketch of a romance whose magic is wearing thin, and a heady inquiry into why and how we take pleasure in such stories. Strickland spoke to The Dissolve from New York about why his characters aren’t “strange,” his love of noise rock, and why you aren’t likely to catch him in a fireman outfit.
The Dissolve: Let’s start with the obvious: I understand you put out a 7-inch single of mole cricket songs.
Peter Strickland: Yeah, I’m more than happy to talk about that, because I haven’t sold them all. I put that out in 2003 with David Ragge and Jim Reynolds. What I found interesting about it was, there’s two species of insect, which are different, but physically, you cannot tell the difference at all. The only way you can tell the difference is by sound. I thought that felt like a really good idea for making a noise record. They’re one of the noisiest insects out there, and I think the mole cricket, Gryllotalpa vinae, sounds like some of the early White House records. It was kind of an excuse to make something very unpleasant and atonal, but disguise it as a classification guide. I did it as something really, really straight. I didn’t want to do anything transgressive. I recorded a lot of sleep logs and how they function and so on, which I made a copy of for The Duke Of Burgundy. I was really happy with it. I kind of knew it wouldn’t sell. I made 300 copies on 7-inch vinyl with a gatefold sleeve and beautiful illustrations. I think people really missed out when they didn’t buy it. I have a few left, but they’ve basically been under my bed for years and years. I got so sick of all these boxes under my bed. Everyone else has product placement in films. Why can’t I do it?
The Dissolve: In your list of favorite albums for The Quietus, you say what makes My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything interesting is “the framing of noise within a pop context.” That seems somewhat analogous to how The Duke Of Burgundy and Berberian Sound Studio work, in that they use the outline of a conventional story—a romance and a thriller—but climax with non-narrative abstraction.
Strickland: Yeah. That was a thing for me. I really love Merzbow, but there was no counterpoint to the noise. I love pop. I love noise, but I also love people who can somehow use one to drive the other—bands like Sonic Youth, Jesus And Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab. They found this way to not use noise as a gimmick, but somehow make it part of the DNA of the music, and it’s just really inspiring for me. I listen to music a lot when I’m writing stuff. It gets me in a certain mood, but also for the ideas and how they make things, and the structure of what they do. For Berberian, it was a big influence. A lot of the music had repetition, like Nurse With Wound, where he would have these very formal elements, and then suddenly have a jump cut into this completely odd piece of music. A lot of inspiration came from that, or Italian stuff like early Franco Battiato. Music’s always good for stealing things from. For many, many decades, cinema was taking its cues from books, and then when you have people like Nicolas Roeg, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, David Lynch, they were taking their cues from painting. But not that many directors were taking their cues from sound, or from music, in terms of the structure of how it was done. It was just right for stealing from, really.
The Dissolve: Was that conscious or deliberate? Was film always something you were working toward, or was it just a way of combining elements? How did that transition happen?
Strickland: I’ve been making stuff since 1992. I started in Fringe theater, but I got too frustrated with a still stage. I wanted things to move. So I started doing Super 8 stuff, and then I was making short films up until 2006. Then I did my first feature film. I made a lot of mistakes. I made a lot of bad stuff, but that was a very important time for me, because making those mistakes was necessary. The people I got to know, especially in New York, around 20 years ago, really inspired me. I did a film with Nick Zedd (Bubblegum), and actually the guy who shot that, Ethan Mass. He shot a lot of films for Maria Beatty and M.M. Serra, who were making films about women in these cinematic relationships. The first film job I ever had working on a film set was for Bruce LaBruce’s Skin Flick. That was a really important time in the ’90s, just kind of getting to know people.
I always wanted to be a musician, but I knew I didn’t have the talent. What I loved about music was that it was so immediate, the idea that you could be put into this world so quickly, and to be transformed. Your blood pressure changes with music, your state of mind changes: I always wanted to find that power in films, to take me into someone else’s head. I don’t really want to see the real world. I’m quite a fan of escapism. I still like Hollywood films, actually. I guess things might change, but the films I’ve made up until now, I’ve really wanted to have that sense of getting the audience in a certain atmosphere. One of my favorite films is Street Of Crocodiles by the Quay brothers. I haven’t got a clue what it’s about, but that sense of place is so strong in that film.
The Dissolve: You mention working on Bruce LaBruce’s Skin Flick, which both embraces and disassembles the tropes of hardcore pornography. The Duke Of Burgundy does something similar with gauzy Italian softcore.
Strickland: Yeah, I really love those films. Not all of them, some of them are really bad, but the good Franco ones are really beautiful and strange. I’m not a fan of women-in-prison films. They’re pretty sordid. But what’s interesting is that the first 10 minutes of The Duke is like a mockup of a Franco film. It informs the whole setup of a sexual fantasy being lived out. I think it’s just a matter of unpeeling that. I think all of his films—not all of them, but many of his films—serve these kind of masochistic needs. I want to see this ice queen who’s supposed to be this perfect, stern model out of character. I want to see them miss their cues, I want to see them in their pajamas, I want to see them snore. They’re not going to bed in their corsets. It is taking these tropes from genre, and just looking behind and seeing what happens when you follow these things to their extreme. Or, I wouldn’t say to their extreme, but just think about what would you do. What would you do if someone asked to be put in a box? You want to ask them if they can breathe, but you’re not supposed to ask them that.
Ultimately, the most interesting thing for me was that one of them was not into the game. If they’re both into it, I think that would be kind of boring for me. That thing is, “What do you do if two people have their different intimate needs?” Who is compromising? The one who does something they find distasteful, or they’re just not into it, but they do it because of vicarious joy, which only has so much mileage to it. Or is the other person compromising by keeping it all contained? What I tried to do is make something that the audience can go away and argue about. I don’t really have the answers for it. The important thing for me was to not judge the characters. I really wanted to give them some kind of dignity. It’s my job to make them misbehave, to tease them a little bit in terms of what they go through, but I really didn’t want to laugh at them at all. There’s a lot of trust in that relationship, there’s a sort of flirty boot-polishing. But you know, I still see it as a tender love story. If I had to describe the film, I would call it a domestic drama.
The Dissolve: In a sense, the film is centered on a relationship crisis that is so common as to be almost mundane, and wraps it in a very unfamiliar environment. It’s this hermetic, entirely female world, and also a kind of sexual relationship that is, at the very least, unusual on film. Was the idea to take something common and present it in a novel way? Or to tunnel through the relationship and say, “Look, we’re all going through the same thing underneath”?
Strickland: I guess it was finding something familiar in something strange. It’s kind of the opposite of what I’ve done before, which is usually finding something odd and strange in something very familiar. I don’t want to call what they do “strange,” because that’s a little insulting, but it’s something that is not common, shall we say. I think my fear when I write—I want to make my characters misbehave onscreen, but it’s the danger is, you have one masochist onscreen and they misbehave. The politically correct fear is, “Is that person misbehaving because they’re a masochist?” Well no, she’d misbehave if she was the president, or whatever. She was just a bit spoiled and a bit young and naïve, not because she’s a masochist. But hopefully by implying that this world is very used to bondage and so on, it doesn’t do that. It’s so common that the carpenter doesn’t mind giving away the fact that one of the neighbors is buying a bondage bed. It’s such a carefree world in that sense. I’m aware that working with low budgets, there’s no great pressure to open it up to a big audience. It’s really about serving this atmosphere, and making something that makes you see something, which is niche but maybe something which is quite familiar at the end of it—hopefully.
The Dissolve: You’re also good about implicating us in the movie’s so-called perversion. We’re looking through keyholes, we’re seeing distorted reflections. We’re peeping Toms, we’re not guiltless.
Strickland: A lot of it is shifting perspectives. I think a lot of the film is done from Evelyn’s perspective, which I guess is the audience perspective to some degree, and the director’s perspective. When it’s Cynthia’s turn, we’re not using the mirrors. It’s a lot more relaxed the way we shoot it. The Peeping Tom element is more the director’s perspective, and I think there’s so many parallels between my job and Evelyn’s needs in terms of my scripts and Evelyn’s parallel, or shadow script. It’s like my marker tape on the floor and Evelyn’s marker tape, and my direction and Evelyn’s direction and, yeah, my peeping through the keyhole. I don’t know. On one level, I think the sadomasochistic relationship is a theatrical platform for exploring power dynamics in a relationship, but also you can explore power dynamics with directors and actors, and the fear of being an actor, and the fear of performing and putting on a persona which is not you, and being watched.
There’s a scene I cut out of the film when Evelyn says, “What are you complaining about? You’re getting sport, you’re getting foot-rubs.” People would be quite happy to be in that position, but what Evelyn doesn’t understand is that there’s a great psychological pressure to do all that—to put on this persona, and put on the costume as well. If someone asked me to dress up as a fireman every night, I wouldn’t be so open. I suppose it depends how many buttons there are on the outfit. What I love about it is that there’s a paradox of Evelyn needing to be controlled, but controlling the amount to which she is controlled. She’s very happy to be used and give a backrub when it’s commanded in the right outfit, but when it’s pleaded for in pajamas, she’ll do it because she loves Cynthia, but it’s not remotely a turn-on for her. When punishment comes with pajamas, it’s really upsetting for her.