A minor digression to start. Almost six years ago now, I was at Fantastic Fest in Austin where legendary sexploitation auteur Jess Franco received a lifetime honor from the festival. He was accompanied by Lina Romay, his leading lady of nearly 30 years who he married only a year before the festival in 2008. The honeymoon clearly hadn’t ended, as the passion between the two was palpable in the looks they gave each other, but then you could even see it in the way Franco filmed Romay all those decades earlier as she did ongodly things in such films as “Female Vampire” and “The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein.”
Peter Strickland’s “Duke of Burgundy” reminded me of this, not as an homage to Franco’s sex-filled escapades despite the clear superficial influences, but in conveying real romance in spite of its seedy origins, much like Strickland’s previous film “Berberian Sound Studio” was inspired by giallos yet was interested in exploring a different kind of horror. I mention this since it would be a crime to describe the exact plot of “The Duke of Burgundy” in detail, yet Strickland conjures a fiendishly clever exploration of love and all its complications with the story of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), a pair of loungeabouts in an undisclosed European villa who spend their time tending to an immaculate collection of rare butterflies and to each other. Basking in the decadence and cognitive dissonance of cheaply produced ’60s and ’70s softcore where the directors and producers aspired to different forms of titillation, the film perfectly sends up the ridiculous nature of sexploitation films while accomplishing what they couldn’t in all their self-seriousness – to evoke actual passion while all of their gratuitous scenes of lovemaking.
After the film premiered in Los Angeles at the AFI Fest in the fall, Strickland spoke about transcending his influences, why it’s best to go as extreme as possible with your script, and discovering it isn’t necessary to suffer for your art, even in making a film about sadomasochism.
Given all your films seem to start in a certain genre from a particular era before making their way to someplace entirely different, do you need a point of reference almost to inspire you?
It’s a good point because I’m aware for three films I’ve done this now and for the new one I’m doing, for one film, I just want to put that aside and see if I can forget references. I don’t want to just do this genre, do that genre, do this genre. I just want to say, okay, just put that away and see. God knows what’s going to happen, but I want to try that.
When you decided to tackle sexploitation, did a love story emerge naturally?
What I liked about [this genre] was, by most people, the films are not even known, or they’re known and seen as disreputable, disregarded. It’s not violence. You can always have violence. But sex is always kind of shameful in cinema, so [the films] are always going to put to one corner. What was interesting about that whole genre of sexploitation — Radley Metzger and Just Jaeckin, [etc.] — I’m assuming the producers only cared about the sex. Let’s get them in with the sex, so you had six, seven, eight [sex] scenes and they don’t care about the rest. [The producers] don’t care what is in between. That’s what’s interesting for me. The [directors] can do what they want or maybe they take their eye off the ball and things just sort of fall asleep on themselves, which can be really interesting as well. They can be really worth stealing from, essentially.
[Jess] Franco made some terrible films. I’m not going to defend some of those, especially the prison films, but the earlier stuff from the early ’70s that’s really poetic. Intentionally or not, I have no idea, but he really chanced upon something quite unique, which I haven’t seen anywhere else. This film is nothing like Franco. It started off taking some of the obvious elements – the sadomasochism, the female lovers and some of the fantastical stuff, but I took it in a very, very domestic context. I wanted this to be a very tender film about love. I hope I don’t lead the audience to think it’s just going to get darker and darker. It gets dark at times, but it’s always meant to be about consent and tenderness. And where does coercion come in? You’re persuading someone to do something they don’t want to do. It [may be an extreme example like] urination and so on, but it could be about anything that one partner finds distasteful. They don’t want to do, but they do it.
And quite often, it’s not even out of coercion. It’s human nature to do something for somebody else that you don’t like, just out of vicarious happiness – you want them to be happy. But what’s that point when it’s all take and no give? That’s what’s interesting for me. If both [partners] were into that game, I wouldn’t be so interested in it.
You don’t actually go into much backstory on the relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, which is quite refreshing, but did you ever consider it?
I didn’t want to have any psychological back story as to why Evelyn has these desires. A lot of these films, when a character has needs which are not conventionally sexual, it always has to go into their childhood or something. It’s not relevant. I’m not interested in why. Let’s just get on with it. I’m interested in the dynamics. It’s not a film about why it’s a film about how. [They have] different needs, and because they love each other, there’s a lot going through them.
You’ve worked with Chiara before on “Berberian,” but Sidse was new to the gang. Did you do chemistry reads to find this couple?
We had a read through, yeah. We all met up. Chiara was there from the beginning. Sidse came quite late actually. She was recommended to me by Shaheen Bake, the casting agent. If she says someone is good, I listen to her. It’s tricky finding people. Once they hit 40, they’re not keen to take their clothes off. For her, it was a big risk, especially having done “Borgen,” where she’s got a certain image and suddenly it’s going from being the Danish Prime Minister to these kink games, so she was very brave to do it. She’s someone with an extraordinary inner world that she can do without any dialogue, but it took time to find the right person, especially of that age group.
You’ve said the script actually was more extreme than what you shot so you could dial it back. How does that help?
That’s just a decent thing to do with actors. There’s nothing worse for an actor than a director [casually] saying, “Oh, can you take your trousers off.” It’s always better for them if it’s actually not as bad as they thought it would be. I always try to make it harder on paper than it is on set, and [I can say], “Hey, it’s in the script. You read it” and when I meet them, it saves me asking those awkward questions [later]. We don’t need to talk about it. If they say yes, it’s clear they’re going to do those things in the script.
This may be a facile analysis, but after working so extensively on the sound for your last film, “Berberian Sound Studio,” did you make a point of exploring what you could do visually more with “The Duke of Burgundy”?
Yeah, I think sound definitely took a back seat in this film. We still took a lot of care with it. We just didn’t throw all the toys into it. With “Berberian,” we really had a blast messing around with it, but [here] we felt it would have been counterproductive to do that. It would have been drawing attention to ourselves. It’s gratuitous. There are a couple of sequences which warrant it where you have these anxieties and frustrations with the moths freaking out and so on, but with this one, we wanted to make a fairly barren soundscape – quite sensual and quite tactile. Most of our work was taking sound away and giving it space to breathe. I didn’t want to distract people with sound.
Visually, there’s just more going on because there are more locations. With “Berberian,” there was one room essentially. A lot of these things you find when you begin the process on set. Some of those zooms – and I tend to like the zooms, especially slowed down zooms – have a certain magnetism to them. By working with Nick [Knowland, the cinematographer], you find the best way to convey this spell. Nick messed around with a lot of mirrors as well, though [for that] we tried to restrict ourselves only to the scenes when Evelyn is under [Cynthia’s] spell. Even when the carpenter comes in to measure the bed and Evelyn is already getting excited knowing that Cynthia is going to lock her onto this bed, which never turns up of course, that was a code. Whenever Evelyn is getting hot, we try to use the mirrors to convey this heightened sense. Nick put a tube that was in front of a lens and had these little attachments to it that pointed right into a mirror. Sometimes they’d be at a slant, pointing into another mirror, so all of that was in camera.
Then it would just be a trial and error. Position the actors a bit this way, a bit that way. Using a haze machine to give it a bit of more of a decadent, older feel – that’s something we actually chanced upon on set. That was not in the script. We thought if we just restricted ourselves only to those scenes, it wouldn’t feel contrived.
Was it actually more or less difficult when you don’t specify a time or a place to create details that enrich the world?
It’s easier. You don’t have to worry about time continuity in terms of what was right for the period. That was quite refreshing. It’s a nightmare to always worry about what is authentic and what isn’t. For me, this one could be in the future when the oil runs out. They’re using bicycles to go everywhere. It could be any time from 1950 onwards. I wanted it to be like a fable and a lot of the fables I used to read as a kid, they never really had a place. It’s always about immersing yourself in the story. Erase that idea of place, of time, the male gender and jobs. It is preposterous. How the hell could you afford that kind of house? They don’t do anything. The insects are their hobby and it’s not even their job. They just lounge around all day having sex. It is absurd, but hopefully so absurd you just accept it and focus only on their relationship.
Actually, [in general], it’s the most laid back film I’ve made. My last two films were very difficult for very different reasons and I got it into my head that you have to suffer to make something that’s going to be accepted. I was really worried that this one would not be accepted, but I luckily, it has. Okay, it’s not going to win an Oscar, but I’m happy with how it’s done and it just proves to me, I don’t have to suffer to make something. I mean, of all the ones to suffer, this would have been the one since it’s kind of about a masochist and the shoot was demanding because we had 24 days to get it all in. But everyone got on with it. We were very lucky.
You were able to cast Monica Swinn in a small but significant role in the film. Did you get any good stories from her days of collaborating with Jess Franco?
Absolutely. I can’t repeat them, but it was wonderful. We went out for dinner and the way she described [her time with Franco] was quite interesting. They were like outlaws – this little troupe of people that basically were outside society, outside cinema. Cinema didn’t really accept them. The films are almost a way to fund this lifestyle and she said sometimes that she’d act in a film not even knowing that it was for another film as well, so she’s like, “Oh, I’m in more Franco films than I thought I was.” I think she was in 23 Jess Franco films. She’s very lovely, really.
And I knew some of the connections he had … I think Franco worked for Orson Welles at one point and [Luis] Bunuel as well, but I’m not expert on Franco. The real experts are Pete Toombs [the author of “Immoral Tales”] and Steven Thrower [the author of “Murderous Passions: The Cinema of Jesus Franco]. I’ve only seen a handful of his films. The period I found really fascinating is the early ‘70s when he was at his most prolific. I think he was doing 7 films a year and I just can’t even [imagine]. It was even slower then. It was a Steenbeck [editing table]. I remember using a Steenbeck on my first film. They take forever those things. How he did that, I do not know.
As absurd as the film may get, there’s also a great sincerity to it. Was that difficult to achieve tonally?
It’s a mixture of the writing, working with the actors, working with Matyas [Fekete], the editor. It’s all those things, finding that tone. Modulation of the repetitions, especially. Because for me, it is a very sad film. It’s unrealistic, but hopefully emotionally, it’s a realistic film. Weirdly, I find the less specific and less realistic you make something, people accept truths more and I’m not afraid to take it outside of real life. All I can ask for is the audience can recognize something of themselves in a film, of their experiences or in someone else.
Has the response been really nice for you?
It has been. Obviously, there are those who hate it, but I couldn’t ask for more. It is weird because no one believes it when a filmmaker says you have no idea how it’s going to work with an audience, but you don’t. That’s the beauty of it. When you make a film, be very tunnel-visioned and focus on your obsessions and not give a damn about trends or what an audience wants or not even yourself in terms of what they want from you based on your last film. But as soon as you second guess an audience, it’s a terrible thing.
[While you’re making a film] it’s hard to block those things out, but you have to. The more you do, the harder it is. There’s a baggage that comes with your work. People have a preconception of you and the danger is that if you reinforce that preconception, you’re caring too much about what they think. If you abandoning that preconception, you’re still caring too much about what they think, because you’re reacting to it whatever you do. It’s always tricky. I try to do personal films. They’re not autobiographical, but I try to do things that interest me, just put my head down and hope for the best.