One of the most fascinating British films in some while is out now, and I caught a Q&A at the Curzon Soho with the director, Peter Strickland, and his leading lady, the fabulous Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen fame.
The Duke of Burgundy is most easily described as “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey”, though any comparison with that film does The Duke of Burgundy a serious injustice. It’s beautifully shot, in saturated colours and at a leisurely, European pace, and though it is about an SM relationship between two women, there is no nudity, and the SM is figurative as well as literal: it’s about the shifts in power that occur in any relationship.
I won’t tell you any more about the plot, because it will spoil the film to know too much. But do go and see it (though perhaps not with your mother), as it’s a remarkable piece of work. No surprise, incidentally, to find Ben Wheatley on the Executive Producer credits. At the Q&A, the shy director was clutching a glass of whiskey and clearly roaring drunk, though still suprisingly coherent. The moderator said it’s the most Strickland has ever talked. The luminous Sidse Babett Knudsen was appropriately dressed for the occasion in fishnet stockings and burgundy-coloured velvet ankle boots. Here are the highlights:
Director Peter Strickland on the genesis of The Duke of Burgundy: “I met Andy Starke, the producer, who runs the DVD label Mondo Macabro with the wonderfully named Pete Tombs, when Pete wrote a book called Immoral Tales (on European sex and horror movies). We wanted to take some elements of Jess Franco films – female lovers, sado-masochism – but it ended up more as a domestic drama in the writing.
“It’s about SM on one level, but it could be any activity that one person finds distasteful, but that you go along with to keep the other person happy. It’s about the nature of compromise in a relationship.”
Sidse Babett Knudsen: “The SM element came to me a bit late. I read the script and thought there were so many recognisable things in it about ‘Will I lose myself, my dignity?’ As to the lesbianism, Peter said he didn’t want a man and a woman because then it would be about a power game between the sexes. I took everything as figurative, a way of exaggerating things in a relationship.
“Peter told me that at the beginning he wanted it to seem like porn, like just bad acting, and then after ten minutes the audience realises [what’s really going on]. That was the scariest thing about doing the film, that deliberately bad acting!”
Strickland: “There was one screening where the audience walked out in the first ten minutes, and you want to go ‘Come back! Come back! It all changes!’
“I wanted it to be this fantastical world where there are no men – there’s a strange power shift if you put men in there – and where these niche tastes are the norm. I wanted to normalise it [the SM and lesbianism] because when you normalise it you don’t question it. Also these films always have a bloody back-story – a crack-addict mum or something to explain why they are as they are – but I didn’t want to go into the psychology. I just wanted to look at the dynamics of that relationship, that push-and-pull, where one person wants something that the other doesn’t.”
On getting an 18 certificate, despite the absence of nudity: “It is what it is, it’s their decision. I do find it odd that you can show mutilation and violence to a 15-year-old kid, but not two mutually consenting adults pleasuring each other.”
On whether he would ever “sell out” by doing ads or taking the Hollywood dollar: “The reason I live and make films in Hungary is because I can’t afford anywhere else. But I’m home-sick for England; and I’m not going to live in a one-bedroom flat paying all the money I have to a landlord just to please you fuckers!”
We’ll take that as a “yes”, then.
Peter Strickland’s films, including The Duke of Burgundy, are available to watch online through Curzon Home Cinema.