By Ray Pride
A movie about movies and about butterflies and two lovers deep in the woods, dense with influence, about decadence and desire, the third feature by Peter Strickland (“Berberian Sound Studio,” “Katalin Varga”), “The Duke Of Burgundy” dabbles as well in entomology, taxonomies, field recordings, roleplaying and domination. In a European never-neverland (shot in Hungary, largely in a fancy, secluded turn-of-the-century house), the apparently dominant Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, “Borgen”) and the seemingly submissive Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) occasionally venture into a larger world confined to the presentations of butterfly scholars, but mostly remain at home, engaging in ritualistic sadomasochistic roleplaying.
“Burgundy” is a keen pastiche of 1970s Euro-sleaze and high art, and looks amazing on the big screen, calmly florid, precise yet bonkers, bristling with detail. It’s preposterous, delirious and delicious. “It’s great to get it into the cinema, such a short life in the cinema these days, isn’t it?” Strickland says in his firm, fast British accent at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in November 2014. Just like a butterfly: the title comes from the name of an English butterfly with an exceptionally limited lifespan. The lovers also take their “safe word,” “Pinastri,” from the pine hawk moth, or “Sphinx pinastri.” “Pinastri” is something you don’t realize is a safe word when it’s first murmured. “Yeah, you know what? It’s pretty funny, when the film came out, I realized, it sounds like, ‘Be nasty.’ It’s Pinastri! ‘Be nasty!’ She’s Italian, she rolls her Rs!” he says.
Strickland’s script is sly in how the characters gradually switch roles, but as the film began I thought of the old joke, “Hurt me, hurt me,” said the masochist; “Noooo,” said the sadist. “Yes, yes, yeah!” he says with brisk enthusiasm. “The control element. Common sense leads us to believe that the masochist is the one controlling it here, but I might be wrong, correct me if I’m wrong, but I hadn’t seen that in films. I’m not trying to make it realistic at all. What I tried to do was make something that dealt with the pragmatics of it, the pragmatics of being tied up all night, this mosquito in the room. This film would not be interesting to me if they were both into it. Which I guess most films on the subject are. I haven’t read ‘Fifty Shades,’ but I assume they’re both into it. It’s more interesting to me when one of them is not and does it as a vicarious act, to keep the other happy. She does get off on her [lover’s] joy. But there’s no give-and-take in that relationship. It’s not trying to judge the characters. Obviously, my job as a filmmaker is to make the characters slightly more annoying than they would be in real life! I try not to judge them, I’m just saying, it could be any act. It could be the most basic sexual act that one person finds distasteful or repellent. But once you sexually engage with someone, and there’s one thing you really don’t like doing, how do you… Who’s compromising, one of you says, ‘So-and-so doesn’t like doing this for me, to me, therefore I just suppress it.’ Or the one who says, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ I just find that very interesting, the whole negotiation part of it.”
The sense of claustrophobia, a rich score and the intense sound design are almost as thick as the transformed cinematic influences, including “The Servant,” “Persona,” “Belle de Jour,” Radley Metzger, and Fassbinder, not limited to “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” “Yessss,” he says, leaning forward. “The only one that people bring up, I hadn’t seen, Bergman’s ‘Persona,’ so that didn’t really figure, but I can see why it comes up. Fassbinder, massively, massively. As you say, not just ‘Petra von Kant,’ but ‘Martha,’ especially ‘Martha.’ That’s a much, much darker take on sadomasochism. In ‘The Duke of Burgundy,’ it’s play, which goes a bit out of hand, but it’s pathological in the Fassbinder film. But also in ‘Fox and His Friends,’ there’s an amazing scene where Fassbinder meets his boyfriend’s parents for dinner, this is 1975. It’s like any old soap opera scene, the parents, there’s no question of the acceptance or rejection. It’s taken for granted. That was so progressive back then. I wanted to do the same in this one, where the sexuality is not, there’s no counterpoint to their sexuality. There’s no acceptance or rejection, it just exists. It seems that everyone does what they do and that was important for me, because the audience, hopefully, accepts it all. It’s not a freakshow.” He continues, taking hardly a pause, “Melodrama, Douglas Sirk, but yeah, definitely 1970s sleaze, which I love, by the way. Metzger, Just Jaeckin, Franco of course. Some of those films are pretty repellent and I don’t like at all, but the good ones are really fantastical, strange, they have something unlike anything else. What activated me to write was to find these genre elements that fascinated me but somehow it becomes very personal afterwards. I’m taking tropes that have been used so many times and become wooden, and my aim is to humanize them. Not make it realistic, but still pay debt to films that are very fantastical, which is very cinematic to me.”
My favorite line in the stylized dialogue is the incantation, “All I ever wanted was to be loved by you, to be used by you.” He nods. “The fantastic scene for me in ‘Petra von Kant’ is at the end, when the maid, she sees Petra being weak, it’s all gone, she’s lost the power, she loses the desire for her as soon as she sees her weak. What’s fascinating for me is that Evelyn loves to be used by Cynthia, but on Evelyn’s terms. So if Cynthia is wearing pajamas and smelly socks, again, she’s crying. She loves giving Cynthia backrubs, but as soon as the backrub is for medical reasons… I find a lot of parallels between masochists and directors. You say the words, and if there’re not delivered correctly, the spice is not there.”
“The Duke of Burgundy” opens Friday, March 13.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.