There can’t be many films that credit the services of a perfumier, entomologists and “human toilet consultants”. Then again, British director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy isn’t any ordinary movie. A fable-like tale of two women locked into what looks like an ailing S&M relationship, it will be the second bondage drama to arrive in cinemas in a fortnight, following the big-screen adaptation of E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey – which is either a bizarre coincidence or intuitive counter-programming.
Strickland, 41, is less than impressed with the Fifty Shades parallel. “I couldn’t give a flying bullwhip about that film!” he groans. “It’s just a coincidence I certainly hope it wasn’t planned to come out that way.” Strickland’s characters, the dominant butterfly professor Cynthia (Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen) and the submissive housekeeper Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), may not be much like James’s high-flying Christian Grey and S&M newbie Anastasia Steele, but comparisons are inevitable.
The British Board of Film Classification has rated Strickland’s film “18”, despite the fact there is not an ounce of nudity and most of the sexual acts are behind closed doors. You can only imagine that the scene where Cynthia leads Evelyn into the bathroom and – off-camera – proceeds to use her as the aforementioned “toilet” was enough for the censors. And enough for a number of actresses to reject the lead role of Cynthia, as he tells me.
Balding, bearded and buttoned-down, Reading-raised Strickland is a curiosity. His first feature, 2009’s self-funded Katalin Varga, a rape-revenge saga shot in Transylvania, came out of nowhere to win a host of awards. At the time, he was working as an English teacher in Austria and Hungary, where he still lives. He finally quit his day job just before shooting his second movie, 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, starring Toby Jones as a sound effects technician gradually losing his mind. More awards followed.
If there’s a touchstone for Strickland’s work, it’s 1970s Euro cinema: where Berberian was a marvellous tribute to the era’s “giallo” Italian horror movies, Burgundy is a nod to the era’s directors of erotica such as Jess Franco and Radley Metzger. “Those films were made by male heterosexuals, mostly for a heterosexual audience,” says Strickland. “They were appropriating lesbian desire, and this is appropriating what they’re appropriating ... [and] putting it in a different context, that of a domestic drama.”
In its own kinky way, Burgundy deals with what happens when one person tires of a relationship – in this case Cynthia. “It was interesting for me to look at something quite universal through a very niche prism,” says Strickland, who denies that his characters are in an S&M tryst, their relationship being masochistic but not sadist. “Cynthia is not inclined that way. And I don’t think Evelyn would want a true sadist, because it wouldn’t be on her terms.” Recently, he was asked if he thought Burgundy was a “queer film”. He looks puzzled by this suggestion, though points out that one of his early film jobs was production assistant on underground gay cinema legend Bruce LaBruce’s 2000 porn film Skin Flick. “If somebody called it queer, that would be fine. If somebody called it an S&M film, that would be fine. I just don’t want to give people the wrong impression.”
What really disarms about Burgundy is its rich, fairy-tale atmosphere. It’s no sleazy sexploitation title, like those churned out by Franco and Metzger. Living in a rural enclave where it seems men don’t exist, Cynthia spends her days lecturing the local women about moths and butterflies. All of the females wear lavish fashions (created by Peter Greenaway’s costume designer Andrea Flesch) that wouldn’t look out of place in a Fellini movie.
Much of the film’s ethereal feel comes from the soundtrack by Rachel Zeffira and Faris Badwan, aka alternative pop duo Cat’s Eyes. Strickland was a fan of their self-titled first album. “It was the first time I’d heard the spirit of Karen Carpenter without any irony,” he says, and he sent them the screenplay for Burgundy. “We’d [been asked to soundtrack some] rubbish scripts [before], but that one was great,” says Badwan, who most will know as lead singer in The Horrors. Even so, putting it to music was always going to be a challenge.
Strickland sent across scenes and reference points – everything from John Barry to Mozart and the film The Wicker Man. “He had clear ideas,” says Zeffira, “but he allowed us a lot of freedom”. The result is beautiful, a harpsichord and flute-driven score, topped off by Zeffira’s alluring vocals, that’s as beguiling as Strickland’s subject matter. In May, the film will be screened at the Brighton Festival with a live rendition of the score by the band.
Strickland has his own fascination with sound and music. In 1997, around the time he first started writing, he co-formed experimental outfit The Sonic Catering Band, making “intense, monolithic soundscapes”, and later started the boutique record label Peripheral Conserve. Both Katalin Varga and Berberian boasted rich sound design, and recently he co-directed a Björk concert film, Biophilia.
This sudden glut of work is a surprise. The son of two teachers, Strickland spent most of the Nineties and Noughties “knocking on doors” trying to get into the film business. Unable to land a place at film school, he studied fine art at Reading University (“hated it”), made shorts in his bedroom and directed a stage adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But it wasn’t until 2001, when his uncle died and left him some money, that he had the funds for a feature.
Leaving England for Bratislava he worked for a computer-game company and prepared to make Katalin Varga. Filming in 2006, it ground to a halt in post-production when the cash ran out. Strickland returned home, chastened, forced to get a job in data-entry. “It was soul-destroying,” he says. “You look at your CV … you can’t say you’ve done film, it looks really pretentious, especially in Reading.”
Thankfully Strickland scraped the money together to finish the film, and now, five years on, he’s established as one of our most visionary film-makers – an “original voice”, says Badwan, who first heard that Strickland wanted to work with him from pioneering director Chris Cunningham, who produced the artwork for Cat’s Eyes’ first album. “The more you watch the film, the more profound it is,” adds Zeffira.
It even explores the very nature of film-making. “The theatricality of sado-masochism is a great platform for exploring the power in any relationship, but also the power [play between] directors and actors,” says Strickland. Evelyn has scripts she wants Cynthia to learn and marks to hit, just like a director.”
To look beyond the sexual content, Strickland’s film is really about fetishism – everything from nylon stockings to cataloguing insects. Indeed, as we part company, with Strickland revealing that he’s planning a film about London’s Romanian immigrants, he says he’s still wary of the S&M tag for Burgundy. “I just see it as a relationship, based on trust.”
‘The Duke of Burgundy’ opens on 20 Feb. Cat’s Eyes’ soundtrack is out 16 Feb on RAF/Caroline Records