The_Duke_of_Burgundy_POSTERDay after day, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) act out a simple yet provocative ritual that ends with Evelyn’s punishment and pleasure. As Cynthia yearns for a more conventional relationship, Evelyn’s obsession with erotic spells quickly becomes an addiction that may push the relationship to a breaking point. Dripping with eroticism and influenced by European genre films of the 1970s, The Duke of Burgundy is a darkly decadent melodrama from Peter Strickland, the award-winning writer and director of Berberian Sound Studio and Katalin Varga. Nope, it’s not a historical drama, as the title suggests — in this case, the Duke of Burgundy refers to a type of moth. The main character in this film, played by the exquisite Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, is an orthopterist — she studies insects who go through a certain type of metamorphosis. I spoke to Peter Strickland about his mesmerizing new film.

Danny Miller: The use of sound, light, and color in this film is so extraordinary, I wonder if you see your films as much as sensory experiences as you do narrative storytelling devices.

Peter Strickland: It depends on the subject. For this film which explores fetishistic desire, it made sense to make it as tactile as possible — to arouse smell and taste and do whatever we could short of having the scratch-and-sniff cards John Waters used in Polyester! I wanted to activate the senses somehow. When we worked on the opening credits, I saw that as a kind of functional space for pulling the audience into that world as quickly as possible. That’s why you see credits for things like perfume and lingerie.

This movie made me realize how sound is used so poorly, or let’s say predictably, in most films. Does the sound design start when you’re writing the script or does it mostly come later?

On this one it came later. On my last film, Berberian Sound Studio, it was very much part of the whole script. But here I wanted to make it both sensual and austere and it was as much about taking sounds out of the mix as it was putting them in. Many of the sounds were added later which is no reflection on the talented sound people we had on set. The issue for me was I had 24 days to shoot the film and I knew that with sound, if you don’t get it you can get it again, but with the camera, if you don’t get it you’re in big trouble. I avoided using sound library stuff, especially for the moth sequences which are actual proper recordings of adult silk moths. We didn’t manipulate those at all, I wanted them to be real insect sounds.

Amazing, as are the sounds of simple things like putting on clothes and sipping water.

Actually, come to think of it, the water gulping is from on set. I forgot about that!

I was riveted by the performances of those two actresses. My understanding of what was happening in that relationship radically changed several times during the course of the film. In the end, what surprised me the most is what a loving, caring relationship I thought it was. Do you get different reactions about that from different audiences?

Oh yes, I get very different reactions which I kind of like. Some people see the relationship in a way that is very different from what I intended. In my mind, this was always meant to show a consensual, tender relationship but consent that moves into coercion at times. I find that fascinating. One of them derives only vicarious joy from these domineering tactics but that vicarious joy can only last so long before you start thinking, “Okay, what about my needs?” It’s tricky because I didn’t want to judge anyone’s activities, I just wanted to explore what I imagine is quite common in relationships. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, you have two lovers who have different sexual needs and how do you deal with that? There’s a safety between these two women that prevents it from going into a pathological or parasitic arena. There was an immense trust there although it’s interesting that only Evelyn has a safe word — Cynthia does not.

No, and because she doesn’t, she is forced to break character when it gets to be too much for her. I thought Sidse Babett Knudsen was so amazing in terms of her very subtle indications of when things were getting out of hand for her and there was a clink in their ritual.

She’s incredible. For a director, she’s a joy to work with because there’s so much she does off her own back. I mean, she obviously has the script and we talked about her character, but then she just goes off and does her own thing. She always underplayed Cynthia which I liked very much, she never went over the top.

Such an intelligent actress. You know, even though the specifics of what they’re doing is completely foreign to me, I totally related to how we all have a certain level of role-playing in our relationships, we all have some agreed-upon scenarios that we do.

I’m glad. I was very interested in writing a script that was very niche, that could come close to repelling some people, but then finding this common ground that would resonate with people psychologically. It’s a tricky one for me to talk about, though. I’m not trying to “broaden” the audience of the film by saying that it’s not about sado-masochism but in the end I think these are normal people who have the same strong emotions and high stakes as any other couple.


I’m glad you didn’t, but you certainly could have made the decision to be more explicit in what you show. Did you ever consider going into the bathroom, for example, and showing what they were doing in there?

No, it was always going to be that way with the door closed, but there were other scenes that I wrote much more explicitly in the script. Part of that was just covering myself with the actors. There’s nothing worse for a director on set to have to say than, “Would you mind going further?” It’s much better to go further in the script and then pull it back on set. But I didn’t pull back out of any sense of prudishness.

Then what was the reason?

At the time we were making the film I had started hearing a lot about Lars Von Trier’s two Nymphomaniac films. I still haven’t seen them, but I heard they were quite explicit! So then I started thinking that I didn’t want to be compared to those films, I didn’t want to be in some kind of competition about who can do the most explicit stuff. I thought, why don’t we just go in the opposite direction and hold back? Not out of any kind of morality or tastefulness, just out of the desire to play with the audience’s minds a bit more and see how much we can push them without showing things.

It’s so much more effective. You know, not that this film is anything at all like Blue Is the Warmest Color, but I remember talking to that director just after all that awful publicity broke about that film — that as a male director he was somehow exploiting those two women. Do you worry that you might face similar criticism?

This is only the fourth interview I’ve done for this film so I’ll have to get back to you! (Laughs.) Yes, I’m a little prepared for that. I thought of doing this film with two men, I think that might have been the purest thing to do, but I’m doing that in something else I’m working on and it also would have required a very different approach.  Also, I was influenced here by a certain genre, especially the films of Jess Franco. Franco’s films always had female lovers so in a way I think the genre dictated the decision. But I’m sure I’ll get some kind of criticism, it’s inevitable!

I so admire that you’ve able to make films exactly how you want to, but I have to admit I would love to see how your filmmaking sensibilities would translate onto more “mainstream” studio films. Can you imagine yourself working in that world?  

I’d like to think that door is open, and it would be very tempting, for obvious reasons, such as the desire to stop paying rent and actually buy my own home! But maybe the idea of making a living is the wrong reason for entering that world. In any event, I don’t want to rush it. I know a little bit about Hollywood, I have an agent there, but I don’t want to make the same mistakes as some European directors (who I don’t want to name) made who rushed into that too quickly.

The Duke of Burgundy opens today, January 23, 2015, at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles and New York’s IFC Center. It is also available on VOD.