Exploring Sex, Power, and Perfume with ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ Director Peter Strickland

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When it comes to romantic partnerships, is it more important to please our lover than ourselves? Should we indulge in our own desires and needs above all else, or should we submit to their wishes in hopes that their happiness will make us stronger? It’s a delicate and daunting question, and one that upon first thought seems quite obvious, yet never is just such—because even in the most mutually loving relationships, whether its conscious or not, some degree of power play is always at work. And in Peter Strickland’s new film, The Duke of Burgundy, he examines that question as we explore the intimate needs of two female lovers.

Bringing Italian giallo pleasure into the realm of domestic chamber drama, Strickland’s film places us, “somewhere in time, somewhere in Europe,”  as we enter the lives of Orthopterist Cynthia and amateur Lepidopterist Evelyn, two women entangled in an erotic and emotionally complex affair. Upon meeting the characters, we catch them amidst one of their provocative mistress domination rituals, ending in Evelyn’s punishment and pleasure. Although Cynthia receives her own satisfaction out of pleasing Evelyn, she yearns for a more conventional relationship—one in which she doesn’t have to constrict her body into suffocating corsets and hosiery every night, and can show her affection for Evelyn rather than constantly having to demean her. 

Portraying their relationship with both heartwarming tenderness and feverish kink, Strickland manages to elevate his 1970’s lesbian sexploitation influences to show the sensitive and human aspects of the personas we adopt when coupled with another. As one of the most stylish and deliciously sensory films in recent memory, The Duke of Burgundy melds the perfect cocktail of psychological dread, alluring decadence, and compelling melodrama, reminiscent of filmmakers like R.W. Fassbinder, yet in a way that’s wholly his own.

With the film out in theaters and on VOD today, we sat down with Strickland to discuss the origins of his erotic spell of a film, the paradox of power at play, and the stunningly sexy costumes that brings his characters to life.

As a film heavily indebted to genres of the past, did The Duke of Burgundy‘s stem from your desire to put your own spin on the films you loved or did you see it as a unique way to explore a relationship drama?

It started like a commission at first. The producer wanted to remake a Jesus Franco film called Lorna the Exorcist, but that’s not remotely like The Duke of Burgundy. I was into it at the time but quickly got turned off because it was a remake. I was thinking about the Franco films, and many things in terms of B-movies have been rediscovered and put in the pantheon, especially Italian stuff, but apart from people like Tim Lucas, those movies have been left in a corner somewhere. So I thought, why don’t we take some of the tropes from those films—the sadomasochist female lovers—and put them in a different context, the context of a domestic drama. It sounds quite planed when I say it, but it happened organically when I wrote the script.

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Did you always envision the characters as two women?

Yeah, because of the genre really. It was paying lip service to that sleazy, sexploitation cinema and had to come from that. Being make, it feels weird; the most logical, honest thing would have been to have two men do it, but I’m doing that for another film—which is interesting now to see how difficult it would be to fund it when it’s two men and not two women. I don’t know, but I have a feeling it’s not going to be so easy.

Well, it would depend on the material—

It’s much more explicit, much more than this film. So anyway, obviously the questions came up about having the classic male gaze issue and how to address that without pretending as if I could put on a female gaze. It was just about being aware of the pitfalls of being too mechanical or directional in the way I look at things. It had to be two women, but I wanted to focus only on the dynamics of that relationship. I don’t see them as gay—and I’m not saying that so I can sell it to more people, I’m not concerned about that because this is a niche film anyway. So it’s more just that that has been done before and by having no counterpoint, in terms of gender, you don’t have the issues of acceptance and rejection and so on.

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The film exists in a world that frees you from asking questions. You’re focused on their relationship and the intricacies of their daily routine, not where they are or when it’s set. The outside world, which includes sexual counterparts and perceptions of gender, isn’t of interest once you’re inside their story.

For me, the ultimate thing I wanted to explore was two lovers who have very intimate needs, and how consent veers into compromise and how that veers into coercion. I really wanted to present this scenario, which I hope people can argue over afterwards, about who should compromise. Should it be the one who has to do something they find a bit distasteful and repellent, or should the other person compromise and just shut up about their desires and keep it to themselves and repress it? I don’t know, you argue about it.

The specifics, in terms of what they do, I’m aware that the majority of people watching it might find it unfamiliar, but I’m hoping that it doesn’t matter what that activity is. It could be the more basic sexual act, but if one person finds it distasteful and just clearly is uncomfortable doing it, what happens then if you’re involved in a relationship with someone? Also, there were things that fascinated me about the fear of performing and the fear of putting on a persona, which can also go into social conditioning. I loved all the dichotomies and the paradox of power and relinquishing power and wanting to control the amount you’re controlled by someone else.

Some of my favorite moments were when you see them break from their prescribed roles, when they simply can’t comply with the other’s desire or behavior. In those cracks you see how easily the power dynamic between them can shift and how difficult that can be. I found it to be the most natural element of the film, considering that changes so often throughout any relationship.

I wanted to start the film like one of those classic sexploitation films, with many exceptions, but they usually conform to a sexual fantasy—submitting to the wicked warden, the ice queen, the sinister mistress, and that all. But then I obviously wanted to pull the carpet within the first ten minutes and see this ice queen out of character. I wanted to see her miss her cues, I wanted to see her in her pajamas, I wanted to see her snore, and all those human things that are denied to sexploitation cinema.

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It was very exciting to watch the first scene where everything is so precise and perfected, and then to pull back the curtain and see her pacing around waiting for her next line, constantly drinking water to be ready for the final punishment, etc.

Meanwhile, what happened downstairs. The whole film could have been doe in five minutes with just, “Meanwhile, what happened downstairs…,” captions. For me, these rituals of masochism are a really good theater for exploring power dynamics in relationships and power between directors and actors. It’s something you can really have a lot of fun with, and the hardest thing for me was really the tone. There’s the danger of taking yourself too seriously, but also the danger of hiding behind irony, which is an even greater danger. Also, I don’t want to laugh at the characters and I don’t want to judge them, I want to give them dignity. It’s my job to make them misbehave and give them a hard time, but I don’t want to laugh at them.

So it’s finding some cracks where there’s hopefully some dry humor, and so although it’s a completely unrealistic film, I’m hoping that the pragmatics of putting these scenarios together works. In a film like this you never see, see when someone’s tied up, what happens if there’s a mosquito in the room? What happens if you put someone in a box? When I write, I just put yourself in their situation. You put someone in a box and the first thing you’re going to ask is if you can bloody well breathe in there. However, if you want to be put in a box, you don’t want someone to care about you, so you’re just ping ponging when you’re writing the script. It’s all quite logical in some ways, but it takes time to find that logic.

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Going back to what you were saying about setting the tone of the film, much of that was established right away in both the visual and aural aesthetics. How did you conceive of what you wanted the story to look and feel like?

That happens organically. The script is the script, but when we edit we don’t really follow the script for a whole bunch of reasons. Sometimes a scene just goes wrong and then you take it out. Of course you reassembled everything, and I’m used to that, but there are many happy accidents that occurred. Nick who shot the film, he comes from pop videos from the ‘70s and ‘80s so he always has a haze machine on him, and he just had this wonderful, strange spell-like euphoria, which worked for those specific scenes. It was all in camera, we didn’t need to do anything in post. It reminded me of what I saw in Venus in Furs by Franco, but it was quite organic how that happened. 

The sound I didn’t worry about until the very end. In my mind it was never going to be a sound film because that was the subject of my last film. We had a lot of fun with that but it would have felt gratuitous to do that again and I didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. For me it’s just serving the story, so the original sound mix was quite rich with foley then we stripped a lot away. We wanted it to breathe. We wanted something sensuous and tactile, but really wanted it to be quite understated. There’s only one scene where it really lets loose, when the moths break out, but even that, we didn’t do any kind of effects work whatsoever. We used these very dry recording of adult silk worm moths this mating ritual.

Those recording were like little ambient noise pieces of their own and really rounded out the mood. Speaking further to the opening, I was delighted to see a perfume credit in the title sequence.

Oh yeah! I stole that from an Audrey Hepburn movie Paris When It Sizzles, but that was Givenchy who did the perfume. I thought that was too good and had to steal that. I also wanted to set the mood for the audience as quickly as possible. 

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The perfume we can’t smell, whereas the lingerie credit in the opening is very important because not only are the costumes in the film so stunning, but they’re also a character of their own. What did you look to for reference in working with Anna Flesch?

A mixture. Some where Helmut Newton photographs, not the fetishistic ones, more these gothic foresty ones. There were some album covers, some shots of Cathy Berberian (which were used for the carpenter reference), films like Judex by Georges Franju, Les Biches by Claud Chabrol, which was a general influence on the film. There were also the films of Bunuel, but really all that detail that was her. All I said really was that I didn’t want it to be contemporary. When you get to sadomasochism, people instantly think leather and rubber, so I didn’t want to go there, I waned to try something different. I came to her because she worked with Peter Greenway, and she’s based in Hungary as well, and she has this huge warehouse of stuff that he buys from secondhand stores and makes things. So I was quite blessed to have her.