An interview with director Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy)

the_duke_of_burgundy-620x348

As I have told to anyone who will listen, The Duke of Burgundy was my favorite film at TIFF14. That’s why I jumped at the chance to interview director Peter Strickland for The Film Stage. Here’s our chat.

Perhaps it’s premature to call The Duke of Burgundy the best film of 2015 — it is, after all, only January — but tell that to anyone who has seen the film, and they’ll likely nod in agreement. Director Peter Strickland’s visually sumptuous, aesthetically sublime study of role-playing and sadomasochism (but funny!) is a true stunner, and has mesmerized audiences at festivals in Toronto and London.

For Strickland, it is another utterly unique success. His first two features, 2009’s Katalin Varga and 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, showed him to be a winking master of elevated genre fare. Burgundy, however, is something else entirely. Infused with the spirit of ’70s sexploitation and influenced by everyone from Fassbinder to Brakhage, it is an experience like no other in recent memory. It also features two perfect performances from co-leads Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia) and Chiara D’Anna (Evelyn) as lovers immersed in a relationship of role-playing and elaborate (controlled) deception.

Strickland spoke with us about audience reaction, his lack of interest in psychoanalyzing his characters, and why The Duke of Burgundy is a “party-pooper film.” Check out the full conversation below.

If a viewer reads a plot summary of this film, they might walk into it expecting something very different, perhaps far more serious. Yet there is so much humor here. How did you walk that fine line between highlighting the inherent humor of the situation and not going overboard?

I think humor just comes naturally in what I write, although perhaps not as much in my first film [Katalin Varga]. How do you tackle sadomasochism? If you’re too serious, you can fall flat on your face, and then it really does become a comedy — in a bad sense. If you’re too joke-y, then it’s too disrespectful and just doesn’t work. For me, it’s knowing when to laugh. It’s not my right to laugh at the characters — I wanted to give them some dignity. But I want to laugh at the situations. I’m not making a realistic film, but I am making one that’s pragmatic, which involves an element of things going wrong: The dominant woman misses her queue; there’s a mosquito in the room; the fear of being this dominant, cold ice queen, but also making sure you’re not hurting your lover. You can’t inquire how they are, or the fantasy is broken. So that whole trick is a conundrum. There’s a paradox, in that Evelyn wants to control how much she is controlled by Cynthia, but both of them are caught up in these paradoxes.

Something Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna capture so well is the monotony and occasional boredom of the dominant/submissive relationship. This is such a smart and very human approach to the material. Was capturing that element of the relationship one of your goals?

I think it is an element of puncturing that ideal that comes out in some films that explore sadomasochism. A lot of them want to prop up or live out the fantasy. This one wants to puncture the balloon — this is a party-pooper film. [For example, we] see a dominant woman miss her queue, and sleep in her pajamas. She doesn’t sleep in corsets or something; she’s going to sleep in baggy pajamas like anyone else would. It’s peeling away those masks, and showing the layers beneath. There are so many things you can cinematically explore the power dynamics in any relationship. But you can also explore the parallels between the character directing the action and the director directing the actors — Evelyn’s script, her mark tape on the floor, Evelyn looking through the keyhole, Evelyn directing Cynthia when she’s masturbating. [Then there is] Cynthia’s fear of performing, a fear that anyone would have. I’d hate to be an actor!

When the film starts, the audience finds it hard to tell who is actually in control — who is the dominant and who is the submissive. Were you trying to keep these details mysterious when we first meet Cynthia and Evelyn?

Absolutely. I was hoping that audience members who are not familiar with exploitation films would believe Cynthia is just this horrible boss. Another element of the audience, that is familiar with this type of genre film would think, “Okay, this is the classic set up for [1977’s] Ilsa, the Wicked Warden.” That kind of film is playing with this ideal of the masochist. Here, the paradigm hasn’t shifted, but your knowledge has shifted. It shifts later on because Cynthia gets a lot of mileage out of doing these things to Evelyn, but then it runs out, and she’s no longer into it. That’s the crux of the film, really. Had they both been into these games it would be quite boring. I wanted it to be that one of them doesn’t get off on it. The activity she has to do is not of any relevance; it could be any sexual activity she finds distasteful, or repellent. But what happens then, when you have two lovers who have very different ways of expressing themselves sexually and emotionally? How does that work? Can that work? I’m not one to answer that, but I am showing them struggling to find that common ground.

You avoid presenting any type of back story for these characters — no flashbacks to their pasts, or psychoanalyzing. Did you develop any kind of histories for these characters?

I really did not want to do that. I didn’t have any discussions with the actors, although I think Chiara wrote a whole essay on her character. But that was self-motivated. I didn’t want to make any links to childhood — [issues like] self-harming, I did not want to go there. Who knows why Rambo is heterosexual? That’s the way they are and that’s that. What’s interesting for me is the dynamic of how to navigate this relationship. This is who these people are. Right! Let’s get on to it. What happens? How do they resolve these things? If it is something outside of the border of consent, of course one looks into the childhood to find out why. Here, no matter how unusual it might be to some people, [the acts are] consensual. These are sane human beings, and they have a lot of trust.

So for me, I didn’t feel the need to look into their childhoods. Had one of them been an axe-wielding murderer, [we might] have a little peak into her past. I think sometimes you don’t know the “why.” With some killers, you find out about their childhood and it was absolutely fine. So it’s a roll of the dice. That’s a really scary, abstract thing to deal with. Not enough has been done on that, really. This is why I think We Need to Talk About Kevin could have been a better film. It was a good film, but had they shown the mother being full of love for the son, and then him going off the rails, it would have been far more shocking. If you give a reason for something it can be too simple. Real life isn’t like that. It’s far more abstract.

The chemistry between Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna is so strong; we feel as if these two characters have known each other for years. How did you develop that chemistry and believability?

With great difficulty. We didn’t have much time together. They landed in Hungary, and off we went. We had a social meeting the first time they met, but they were really thrown straight in. I didn’t want to have the intimate scenes at first; I saved those for the second week. I felt we should do the heavy, emotional, dramatic scenes first, where they’re arguing and bickering. That worked out quite well, because they were kind of finding their bearings. By the time we got to the second week they were quite relaxed. That is down to Sidse and Chiara, and their expertise as actors. I left a lot to them. Occasionally, rarely, if it was off-key, then I would mention it and say, “We need to go a different way.” But usually I just respected the fact that they read the script, we had a discussion, and off they go. My influence is on casting, and making sure I can have actors who have the ability to just get on with it. There’s no point talking for the sake of it. With Sidse, she has a whole inner world in her face — so expressive without it being too much. Really understated.

The time and setting here is very mysterious. Did you have a particular time or place in mind, or want to create something that was ambiguous? How does the all-female cast tie in here?

I wanted it to be ambiguous, like a fairy tale, or a fable. You’re not sure how the hell they got their money to have this ludicrously expensive mansion. Are they outside a village? Does a village not exist? I wanted a preposterous feel, so preposterous that hopefully you would stop questioning it. I think part of it was I also wanted to avoid the trappings of the subject. One thinks of a film that has sadomasochism and it usually involves leather whips, rubber, and so on, and I just thought that was too predictable. Why don’t we just go for something more gothic-fairy tale, and not use anything contemporary? Make it timeless in a tasteful way. I just love fairy tales, basically, and that’s the bottom line. I love that feeling of seeing things like Willy Wonka or Pinocchio and you don’t know where it is exactly. It’s somewhere middle Europe, roughly within a 50-year span.

What was interesting about having all females is that it stopped being a gay film. I have no issue with [that type of film] whatsoever; it’s purely that I didn’t want to go down the road of anything that’s been done before with the ideas of acceptance or redemption. I wanted there to be no counterpoint. Gender and sexuality doesn’t come into it in that sense. In my mind, it is this kind of Utopian world we all wish could be there in terms of acceptance. I thought about other options — a woman and a man, men only — but [I thought of the films] of Radley Metzger, which usually had female lovers. I was using the genre as a starting point.

The music by Cat’s Eyes, featuring Faris Badwan from the Horrors and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira, could not be more perfect.

I’m a massive fan. I bought their first album when it came out in 2011, and it was one of the best things I’d heard in years. The combination of Rachel’s classical background and Faris’s experimental rock’n’roll background [seemed to fit], so I asked if they would do it. I trusted them immensely. [At one point], Rachel wrote a requiem quickly. We had Mozart’s Requiem in there originally, and she said, “Oh, I’ll write something,” and wrote a whole requiem. They really elevated the film for me. I listen to the soundtrack a lot, which is quite rare. Usually, when you do a soundtrack of a film, no matter how much you like it, you’ve heard it to death. But I still listen to it.

Lastly, the film drew major raves after premiering at TIFF. Can you discuss the audience response? Has it surprised you at all?

No matter what you make or who you are, deep down, you have no idea how it’s going to turn out, so there’s extreme apprehension. Some people call [the subject matter] unusual, but for me, I think it’s a very straightforward drama. But even knowing it’s a drama, and fairly straight, I still felt apprehension. So I was relieved when people responded to it.

2014 in review: My Buffalo News top five

palo-alto-2014-10

One more 2014 list from me: Here’s my top five from the films I reviewed last year for the Buffalo News. It’s a limited list, obviously, but some fun picks here.

From the News’ most frequent contributing movie critic, Christopher Schobert, a list of his Top Five of 2014:

Vampires. LEGOs, sullen teens, and pot-smoking octogenarians would make for a wild party, and all figure in my top five News-reviewed films of 2014. Several just missed the list – Marvel’s “Big Hero 6,” the Bill Hader- and Kristen Wiig-starring “Skeleton Twins,” Scottish musical “God Help the Girl” – while the ludicrously enjoyable “Endless Love,” missed by a mile. Here are five of the year’s cinematic treats.

  1. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: Jim Jarmusch’s mesmerizing vampire love story “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an idiosyncratic gem that feels utterly, thrillingly alive. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston created 2014’s most memorably romantic couple, and the hypnotic, Detroit-set film ranks among the “Mystery Train” director’s finest, most hypnotic efforts.
  1. “The LEGO Movie”: You would be forgiven for thinking an animated film called “The LEGO Movie” would be a soul-crushingly corporate nightmare, but you would be incorrect. For even with the LEGO name, it is a colorful, fast-moving affair with a wildly clever message of creativity. The film is also a rare creation with all-ages appeal.
  1. “Palo Alto,” a rarity in recent American high school cinema – a downbeat drama focused on the sudden, foolish accidents of teenage life. First-time director Gia Coppola has her aunt Sofia’s eye for adolescent ennui, and deftly captures how it feels to be young, bored, lustful and a little bit scared.
  1. “In Bloom”: A somber but electrifyingly vivid Georgian drama, “In Bloom” is a gripping portrait of thwarted adolescence in war-torn, early-90s Republic of Georgia. The film rightfully earned worldwide praise as an insightful document of semi-recent Eastern European history.
  1. “Land Ho!”: As the exclamation point in its title indicates, “Land Ho!” finds just the right crowd-pleasing tone. This wonderfully entertaining travelogue buddy-movie about two seniors vacationing in Iceland is the antithesis of the tired dudes-on-a-road-trip comedy.

Christopher Schobert’s top 10 films of 2014 (via The Film Stage)

two days

I was thrilled to contribute my thoughts on the this year’s best films to The Film Stage. Take a gander, and see if you agree. (See the site’s top 50 list here.)

I saw the best film of 2014 in April, but do not take that as evidence of a weak year. It was, in fact, a rather wonderful 12 months of cinema, perhaps the finest in some time. Consider some of the enthralling films that did not make the cut: The Raid 2, The Double, Enemy, Gone Girl, The Trip to Italy, Snowpiercer, Locke, Jodorowsky’s Dune, The LEGO Movie, The Theory of Everything, Joe, Edge of Tomorrow, Life Itself, Palo Alto, Nymphomaniac, Like Father Like Son, Land Ho!, and Big Hero 6. And many came nowhere near a list of the top 15, but offered distinct pleasures: Lucy, Neighbors, Guardians of the Galaxy, Belle, Godzilla, The Skeleton Twins, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Fault in Our Stars, In Bloom, The One I Love, Blue Ruin, We Are the Best!, and Magic in the Moonlight.
Consider, also, that I have not had the chance, for one reason or another, to see Inherent Vice, Goodbye to Language, Selma, Love is Strange, Calvary, Unbroken, Citizenfour, Pride, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, among others. Oh, and there are also two biggies that were handsome, well-acted, but, to me, disappointing: Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game. Incidentally, the worst film of the year was an easy one — the Cusack-De Niro abomination The Bag Man — but I must also acknowledge the three big-budget wannabe-monsters that wasted time, money, and talent: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transcendence, and RoboCop. Now, on to happier thoughts.

Honorable Mentions: Force Majeure, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Immigrant, Maps to the Stars, Obvious Child

10. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski)
Ida is the definition of a seemingly out-of-nowhere, quietly powerful spellbinder. The performances from Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida and Agata Kulesza as her aunt Wanda rank among the year’s finest, and deserve Oscar consideration. (It’s not going to happen, but they deserve it.) Ida is a haunting experience, with an ending that ranks among the boldest and most engaging of 2014.

9. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Between Enemy and Nightcrawler, it was one delightfully creepy year of Jake Gyllenhaal. The latter, from director Dan Gilroy, is an incisive, acidic view of the creation of a monster — in this case, Gyllenhaal’s amoral videographer. Watching it at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was downright exhilarating, as Nightcrawler revealed itself to be more than just a goosebump-y thriller. Indeed, this is bold, go-for-broke filmmaking that will look even more impressive in years to come.

8. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
The buzz emanating from Cannes was on the money: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a Russian tragedy that lingers in the memory. What is perhaps most interesting is how the story slowly develops, moving from small-town politics to gender study and, eventually, a meditation on luck, fate, and violence. The imagery here is unforgettable, and the performances stunning. Leviathan is a dark and incisive look at life in modern Russia.

7. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Like the imagery in Leviathan, the faces in the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night are unforgettable. Well, one face, actually: that of the great Marion Cotillard. As spare and contemplative as the Dardennes’ best work, Two Days, One Night has an emotional urgency that is almost overwhelming. Cotillard makes the fate of Sandra — a factory worker attempting to persuade her co-workers to give up their bonus, allowing her to keep her job — the fate of the audience. This is her finest performance. And that’s saying something.

6. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
The Sidney Lumet talk is apt, as J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year certainly captures the scope and pulse of the late master’s dramas. But this is a dark-side-of-the-American-dream epic with a reach all its own. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain create the most compelling couple of the year, and by the time the credits role, the viewer feels as if they have just witnessed the most significant moments in the birth of a giant.

5. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
It seemed almost impossible that Iñárritu’s Birdman could live up to the festival hype, but indeed it did. Yes, it is a technical marvel. But, above all else, it is an actor’s showcase. Watching Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson levitate, contemplate, rage, and annoy makes the film one of this year’s most pleasurable, and he is equaled by Edward Norton and Emma Stone, especially.

4. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s romantic, cool, mesmerizing love story is an idiosyncratic gem, and a vampire film that feels utterly, thrillingly fresh. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are remarkable as the central couple, the visuals are lush and mysterious, and the soundtrack enhances vistas both urban and exotic. The overarching feel is unmistakably that of a Jarmusch picture, but on a heretofore unreached scale, and its open-ended conclusion is thematically appropriate. It makes the audience feel as if Jarmusch’s dreamlike film could loop back to the beginning, in a circle, and run again, again, and again. How wonderfully fitting.

3. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater’s film is one of the finest studies of adolescence ever made, and a remarkable achievement that pulls off something extraordinary: It makes one feel as if you’ve watched a fictional character grow up before your eyes — because you have. Sort of. Admittedly, being a parent made Boyhood resonate on a deep level, but its force is obviously not limited by age or life status. I think audiences have embraced Linklater’s film so strongly because it makes so many other coming-of-age stories seem trite and overblown. By focusing on the little things, Linklater made a film that can speak to nearly everyone.

2. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
Whiplash is one of the most exhilarating films in years, and certainly one of the finest of 2014. It’s also one that may end up severely misunderstood. Many reviews see the theme as very direct: the only way to become a great artist is through merciless practice, preferably under the tutelage of a tyrant. I’m not sure it is quite so clear-cut. Yes, the movie ends — SPOILER — with Andrew finally winning the respect and approval of the drill sergeant-esque Fletcher. For a few moments, at least. It’s a victory, to be sure, but not necessarily an indication of stardom, or even greatness. This success does not mean director Damien Chazelle necessarily believes it was all worth it, or that he agrees with Fletcher’s methods. It is the appropriate ending, and a great one at that.

1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is the film I referenced at the start, the one that I saw in April and never stopped swooning over. But what is it, exactly, that makes this film come in so far ahead of any other in 2014? Perhaps it is the way Skin makes the Scottish landscape look positively, well, alien. Maybe it is the incredible performance from Scarlett Johansson, an absurdly fascinating score, and the brain-searing imagery. Or perhaps it is how those elements come together for one entrancing experience. This is the most haunting, complex film of the year, and a sad, disturbing work of art. There are scenes that continue to linger in my memory months after that first viewing — chiefly the sight of a crying baby, alone on the beach. That sequence, and others, still resonate, and they will for some time to come. Quite simply, any year in which there is an Under the Skin is a great year for cinema.