In new film The Duke of Burgundy, Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Cynthia, the very strict mistress of a large house in an unnamed European country, while Chiara D’Anna portrays her much put-upon maid, Evelyn. Or do they? Actually no, they do not. Cynthia and Evelyn, as the viewer swiftly discovers, are in fact lovers who repeat the same mistress-servant scenario over and over again, to the joy of the latter and the increasing frustration of the former.
Written and directed by British filmmaker Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) the movie pays homage to ’70s-era European erotic cinema with a note-perfect enthusiasm which makes it hard to describe at any length without sounding a little, well, creepy. “I kind of like the sleazy descriptions,” says Strickland with a laugh. “It separates [out] the people that shouldn’t see the film. I guess a very polite way of [describing The Duke of Burgundy] would be, It’s about people who have very different intimate needs. If it’s a film where they’re happily into bondage, I’m not interested—that’s a romantic, feel-good film. I’m interested in the conflict of someone who doesn’t enjoy doing it but does it to please the other person. Also I think the arena of sado-masochisim is very theatrical. I love the artifice of it.”
Below, Strickland talks more about The Duke of Burgundy (which debuts theatrically and on VOD on Jan. 23), his future projects and, in a strange twist, Larry the Cable Guy.
EW: I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in ’70s European cinema, but from the opening seconds of The Duke of Burgundy I immediately knew where we were, cinematically speaking. The film immediately evokes a specific feel, a genre, a time.
PETER STRICKLAND: There are many areas within European cinema that I don’t know. But that is my favorite type of cinema, specifically people like Buñuel, Fassbinder. I’m a bit old-school like that. So I guess this naturally came out of that world. But also out of the world of fairy tales and this idea that you don’t know quite where it is in Europe. Even some of Buñuel’s films—even though they’re set in France or Spain—you’re not quite sure where they are. There’s something about these Spanish film directors—Buñuel and Jess Franco—there’s a sensibility there that I find wonderfully perverse. The idea of desire and all the different masks that have to be unpeeled to find what is ticking there, it’s something you can only scratch the surface with in a film. My hope with this film is that it’s a talking point, or an arguing point, for people afterwards. I’m presenting a couple who care for each other, and love each other, and are very tender. But can it work if you have very different sexual needs?
Maybe I’ve over-thought this, but there were times when I wondered if I was watching a stealth sci-fi movie. There are no men in the film, and the only profession anyone seems to have is lecturing about butterflies.
Hobbies! It’s not even a profession—it’s a hobby!
Regardless, I wondered if I was supposed to think this was all taking place in some alternative universe.
Yeah, I wanted it to be preposterous. How the hell can they afford that mansion? They don’t even work; they just lounge around all day, indulging in their hobbies. If only all of us could do that! The first draft, they had jobs—Cynthia was a hairdresser—there were men involved. It just didn’t work. By eliminating all these things you just focus on the relationship. The characters tend to write themselves once you get going. So much of writing for me is just finding that tone, getting that atmosphere, and most importantly getting the level of seriousness and humor. How far do I push it? What’s that film? Body of Evidence? With Madonna and Willem Dafoe?
Where she pours hot wax on him?
That’s right. I never saw that but I remember that got ridiculed. That was my fear. I should see it before talking about it, but I gather it just took itself too seriously, it became a victim to that. But I I didn’t want to use irony. For me, irony is a kind of cowardice: “I’m afraid someone’s going to laugh at me, so I’m going to put it in quotation marks.” The humor I tried to find was not in laughing at these characters but the humor in enacting these scenarios. So it’s a clearly an unrealistic film but I’m hoping the pragmatics caused the humor to come organically. What if there’s a mosquito in the room if you’re tied up all night? What if the character misses their cue? I just wanted to see these genre characters snap out of the ice queen ideal.
It reminded me of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, in as much as I don’t think that everyone who is interested in film will necessarily like it, but I think everyone who is interested in film should definitely see it.
I love A Field in England.
I know Ben was one of the executive producers. How involved was he?
What’s good about Ben is he’s a filmmaker. So he understands that filmmakers don’t like being told what to do. I think for him it was more, This is something I want to get involved with. Once he read the script, there was a trust there, and he just left me to it. I had a lot of freedom on this one, which was good. We kept the budget low. Obviously the higher the budget goes, your freedom diminishes somewhat.
What’s next for you?
The most immediate thing is a radio play with Toby Jones. We’re going to record it next month. I just wanted to take a step back. No offense, but promotion is exhausting. Film-wise, I’ve written a script about the period just before AIDS, that very fascinating period between Stonewall and AIDS, when there were no social consequences and no medical consequences for having these desires and being very active. I wanted to explore that burst of hedonism. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be very hard to finance. Because it’s period, it’s going to be very expensive to do. Plus it’s niche subject, sadly.
According to IMDb, you are thanked on a TV movie called Larry the Cable Guy: Tailgate Party. Is that correct?
I’m not aware of that. It must be another Peter Strickland. I’ve never even heard of that film.
You’re not familiar with Larry the Cable Guy?
No. Is it good? Is it like Dodgeball? Because I loved Dodgeball.
You can see the trailer for The Duke of Burgundy, below.