Topping, Bottoming, and Between: The Duke of Burgundy's Peter Strickland
Before you know anything, know this: Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy is a masterpiece. It is the first movie of 2015 that you must see, and I almost want to warn you against reading the interview below because it is better to know nothing about this movie let it shock you. It is the kind of movie you will need to talk about after you've seen it—my boyfriend and I watched it (it was my second viewing) and we talked about it for the next two days. If you happen to see it alone, and need someone with whom to discuss it, I'm just an email away.
Principal characters Cynthia and Evelyn live in a secluded estate, somewhere in Europe, at some point in time (maybe today, maybe 30 years ago). Their sex life involves an elaborate role play ritual in which Cynthia (older by about 10 years) is the ostensible sadist and Evelyn is the masochist. But, as anyone who's had it knows, sex is rarely so simple and among the several things that makes The Duke of Burgundy brilliant is its exploration of the fluidity of power in the sexual arena. The dynamic portrayed in The Duke of Burgundy goes beyond "bottoming from the top" or "topping from the bottom" and wraps around those concepts several times so that by the end, you're left unsure of who's truly calling the shots or if it even matters. I've never seen a more specific exploration of sexuality on film, and because of that, I've never related to on-screen sexuality more, regardless of the gender of the characters.
"I'm trying really hard to throw these questions out to an audience, not to judge it and say, 'You should do this,' or, 'You shouldn't do that,'" Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) told me last week in the office of IFC, which is handling the distribution of his film. "I'm just showing a world." Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our chat, which Strickland, who's British, prefaced by explaining he was feeling jetlagged. Over the course of our discussion about his film, Strickland explained why his characters aren't gay, but refused to label himself either way.
Gawker: To focus on this particular dynamic between two women strips the gender politics out of topping and bottoming, right?
Peter Strickland: Absolutely. I was wondering what [it would be like] having two men, being male. I came very close to that, but I'm saving that for a different film. I think it would have been a very different film in terms of the way we shot it. I can't pretend I'm a woman when I shoot something, but I'm aware of some male trappings as a male director—I want to be less directional with the camera, less mechanical. I guess I wanted something a little softer, and maybe not too sensational as well. The subject is sensational enough.
Because the fact of the matter is that people can watch two women have sex more easily than two men.
That is probably something, in hindsight, I had to consider. What will be really interesting is with this other film [about a male/male relationship], how quickly I can get the money for that. That will determine whether that's true or not. I've got a feeling you're right. I certainly have come across people who are very conservative. At two women, they sort of raise an eyebrow, but kind of like it deep down. Where as with two men, they're just like [flustered non verbal sounds]. For me, it's weird, because my first-ever film job was in a gay porno film: Bruce LaBruce, Skin Flick. I'm no stranger to that, but ultimately I chose two women. But they're not gay. I'm not saying that because I want to reach out to a wider audience. They're not gay because it is this utopia, where it's not an issue. There are no men [at all in the movie]. I think if you make them gay, suddenly, even if you try not to, the issue of acceptance comes in, the issue of rejection comes in. There's a film I saw by [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder called Fox and His Friends, which is really liberating. [A character] takes his boyfriend to his parents' for dinner, and there's no question of, "He's gay?" He's just the boyfriend. That was really radical for a film in the '70s. Even now, the boyfriend comes to dinner and suddenly it's about coming out or whatever.
So you wanted to strip it of that?
That's also very modern. You listen to young people talk about their sexuality and so many people hate labels, even bisexual, even if that's effectively what they're practicing.
I'm not young anymore, so I don't know what people say. I'm middle-aged now. I don't really get young audiences. I tend to get older people. Not by design.
Having the woman-on-woman dynamic is also truer to what you're referencing, like Jess Franco's work.
Absolutely. [Franco] was a starting point, but it certainly wasn't an ending point. This film doesn't feel like a Franco film anymore, but the beginning was: "Let's take some of these stereotypes—the female lovers, the sadomasochism—but let's take it somewhere else." I'm not trying to make it realistic, but I'm trying to explore the pragmatics of it. What happens if someone's tied up and there's a mosquito in the room? What happens if you can't always hit your cues? You've got to learn your lines as a dominant person. All the films I've seen, they were always on cue. They were always the perfect ice queens. I wanted imperfection to come in.
I really related to scene in which Evelyn masturbates and has Cynthia talk dirty to her and Cynthia eventually says, "I don't know what else to say."
That's also about performance as well. On one level it's a sexual arena, but it's also about fear—probably the director's fear as well—of being onstage. Of performing. I'm the lucky one, I'm behind the camera, but in a way, Evelyn is my proxy. She's shadow-writing the script. She's shadow-laying down these bits of tape on the floor for Cynthia to walk in line to the keyhole. Cynthia's fear of having to perform and that fear drying up, which happens when Evelyn's masturbating—I think what's fascinating about sadomasochism is these wonderfully rich dichotomies of the masochist controlling the level at which they are controlled by someone else, and the dynamics where Evelyn can happily give a back rub to Cynthia when it's commanded, but when Cynthia pleads for a back rub, when she's in pain, Evelyn won't do it. So much is in nuance and modulation, and that's my fascination as a director, when I work with actors or with sound and so on.
This movie is so specific and real that it has to come from inside of you.
It does, every script does.
But how biographical is it?
My films are never biographical. They're personal, they're all personal, but I'm not a big fan of pinpointing, "This is me." All the films, they're elements of something, but they're all mixed in with someone I know, or me, and this, and that. I don't know, I always try to keep my life as a blank page. I probably fail to do that.
Do you talk about your sexuality?
No, I never have, so no one knows if I'm gay or straight.
That's on purpose? You won't tell me?
No. Nice try, but no. You could probably find out, but I'm not the one to actively say to anyone my politics, my religion, my sexuality. I just feel...maybe subconsciously some of it is I'm a private person, but I think a lot of it is when you say you are something or not something, it kind of shapes the film too much.
It cuts off other arenas to interpret, I think. "So and so was this, therefore this means that in the film." If I stay out of it—yeah, it's personal it has to be—but I wouldn't say they're biographical, no.
I wonder how this dynamic would (and does) play out in a heterosexual coupling. I relate to it because those gender politics are stripped away and I'm gay, but I don't know if the power can be that fluidly shared between a man and a woman.
I had one person tell me that when you have a male in there, the power dynamic does become corrupt somehow. That's the way that person put it. That's what I like about filmmaking—that curiosity. How are people going to react to it? I genuinely never know when I make a film how it's going to go down. Usually they go down pretty badly at the beginning. They get rejected by a lot of festivals. And I think, "OK, I fucked it up again." And then someone takes it and you see what happens. I think a lot of it is because I'm not good at expressing myself. That sounds like a cop out, but I think a lot of writers do write because they can't express themselves very well.
Express yourself how? This is an extremely expressive movie.
That's the thing: I can put it into a movie, but as a person when I speak...the pen is where I feel really comfortable. Even with actors, I find I know what I need but I can't express it sometimes. Quite often I just play them music: "Here's a piece of music that captures that mood." And that really works sometimes. It is a weird paradox of filmmaking: You want to communicate with an audience, you want to speak, you want to ask questions as well, but there is this...I don't know...
The Duke of Burgundy opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday. See it.