Peter Strickland: 6 films that fed into The Duke of Burgundy

Director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) lists the cinematic influences on The Duke of Burgundy, a tale of lepidoptery and lesbian sadomasochism set in an all-female world.

13 February 2015

By Peter Strickland

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Morgiana (1972)

Director: Juraj Herz

The Duke of Burgundy could’ve been a contemporary film, but instead of placing a love story unusual by social standards in an ordinary setting, it felt more effective to place a love story that is the norm in society in an extraordinary setting. Morgiana felt like an appropriate setting in terms of atmosphere and tone. It’s more delirious in its Gothic aspirations than The Duke of Burgundy, but the decadence of Morgiana could perhaps fuel the theatrics I wanted to explore. The score by Luboš Fišer is achingly lyrical and veers gracefully between pastoral and camp Gothic. 

There is one scene in The Duke of Burgundy where Evelyn discovers a trunk as a consolation prize for missing out on the purchase of a bondage bed, which is a blatant rip-off from the basement scene in Morgiana. Without any false modesty, we couldn’t come close to matching the ecstatic chiaroscuro of that scene, but we tried. It’s a scene worthy of Cocteau or even a Cocteau Twins album cover.

Morgiana (1972)

Several films have influenced The Duke of Burgundy tonally and thematically, but the actual shoplifting of scenes or shots is scarce. We copied a few ‘technical’ things such as Stéphane Audran’s hair from Les Biches (1968), but from memory it’s only the Morgiana basement and Brakhage moths which are obviously held up in intertextual deference. One is always on thin ice when paying homage, yet if the context is different enough and the action or intention within these tributes is woven into the fabric of the film, then hopefully the cinematic cobwebs of the past are not so intrusive.

A Virgin among the Living Dead (1973)

Director: Jesús Franco 

Along with Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), this is a potent example of what could be termed somnambulant cinema. I love films that fall asleep at the wheel and A Virgin comes from somewhere else entirely. Its wooziness is something that suited the later parts of The Duke of Burgundy. The dim nocturnal reveries in the mansion and the forest were an influence on how we approached similar scenes in The Duke. Bruno Nicolai’s achingly mournful score also aided me in terms of how to move between different pitches in the film. What I love about A Virgin is its funereal quality that stays with you way into the night.

A Virgin among the Living Dead (1973)

At his best, Franco channelled the fantastical cinema of Georges Franju into his own psycho-sexual spasms. At his worst, he lapsed into sordid and dull 42nd St rip-offs. Franco regular Monika Swuine made a guest appearance in The Duke of Burgundy. She spoke very fondly of the times she worked with him on 23 out of the 200 or so films he’s known for. Moving across Europe in order to chase finance or evade censorship, Franco and his gang were cinematic outlaws who made films with the mindset of bank robbers.

The Immoral Tales book by Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill celebrates that shadow industry of sleazy auteurs such as Borowczyk, Rollin and especially Robbe-Grillet who, as with Franco, was no stranger to sadomasochism or the occasional mannequin. Thanks to Duke producer Andy Starke and his partner, Pete Tombs, I was able to sift through the Franco haystack on their recommendation.

Mothlight (1963)

Director: Stan Brakhage

It wasn’t easy to see Stan Brakhage films in the early 90s. The London Film Makers’ Co-Op would sporadically show something and Mothlight did appear on the legendary John Wyver-produced show Midnight Underground on Channel 4 in 1993. But these were just breadcrumbs given how vast his body of work was. As with many films during that time, I had to anticipate what they were like based on whatever I could read. Light Moving in Time by William C. Wees was my bible on Brakhage and other directors such as Jordan Belson and Paul Sharits.

I eventually got to see the great man himself along with his recent hand-painted films at the National Film Theatre in 1994. What I didn’t know at the time was that Michael Prime (whose moth recordings dominate the homage to Mothlight in The Duke of Burgundy) was also in attendance.

Mothlight (1963)

I can’t remember exactly when the idea of alluding to Mothlight came up; somewhere between the first and last draft of the script. Once Lepidoptera found their way into the script, it didn’t feel contrived to channel Brakhage in. Had the film remained outside of the entomology realm as it was in the first draft, then the homage would’ve never occurred to me.

It made sense in the world of a lepidopterist undergoing moments of intense anxiety and though Mothlight is silent and without any emotion, it could be appropriated to convey an anguish that words couldn’t match. It’s the most obvious homage I’ve attempted and Brakhage probably would’ve detested it given that a whole team of people at a VFX company (Jellyfish) created this digitally. With very few exceptions sound or music had no place in Brakhage’s notion of cinema, so that’s probably another penalty point for me.

The inclusion of an obscure reference done in an obvious fashion can be precarious in terms of what that reveals about a director’s motivations. At worst, the act of homage is merely posing and diverting attention onto the director rather than the film, but when done organically and effectively, as with both Greenaway at his best and Tarantino, it enriches the film and places it within a wider (albeit self-imposed) lineage that can be rewarding for the curious viewer.

Mano Destra (1986)

Director: Cleo Übelmann

Cleo Übelmann’s seldom seen meditation on restraint and anticipation transcends its bondage trappings with obsessively composed cinematography and evocative foley. At first, reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), the seeming stillness is betrayed by the occasional twitch of a calf muscle under the severe rope trickery. Übelmann’s ice cold approach to form serves the subject matter perfectly, as both the willing ‘captive’ and audience submit to waiting and waiting. High heel footsteps within varying distances are what either promise or deny us and the submissive any release, both literal and metaphorical.

Mano Destra (1986)

Too long for a short film and too short for a feature, Übelmann’s film is outlawed by that alone. However, despite its various alienating tactics, there is an admirable rigorousness and stubbornness to the film, aided by the inclusion of the driving ‘Dark Wave’ pop of ‘The Sky Is Full of Stitches’ by The Vyllies.

Mano Destra is a film I saw at London’s Scala Cinema 24 years ago and some of its ideas along with some of its tenderness (underneath the minimal, icy surfaces) were a strong influence on The Duke of Burgundy. Along with the films of Monika Treut, MM Serra and Maria Beatty, Mano Destra is a vital and covert exploration of different desires in the absence of men.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Nobody could be both as caustic and tender as Fassbinder. There is the obvious all-female world of Petra von Kant, despite the mention of male appendages to provoke jealousy. But what stayed with me from that film was the dynamic between von Kant and her assistant, Marlene. The unravelling of the sadomasochistic codependency is similar to The Duke of Burgundy in that we assume it’s a dysfunctional employer/employee scenario only to later realise that Marlene gets off on her mistreatment.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film, and I can’t remember if von Kant enjoys abusing her assistant or just does it to please her. What I’ll never forget is the ending in which once weakened by her love for Hanna Schygulla’s ingenue, von Kant’s appeal has all but withered for Marlene and she leaves probably in the hope of finding a sterner boss. That submissive impulse is taken to its extreme in the later film Martha (1974), only for it to be Carstensen’s turn to play the masochist. 

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

It’s one of the most chilling films I’ve seen and it probes a much deeper, much darker form of masochism than The Duke of Burgundy. Evelyn’s masochism in The Duke, as persistent as it is, mostly pertains to arousal whereas Martha’s troubled needs permeate the core of her being. The scene in which Karl Boehm forces Carstensen to revise various chapters on bridge building so he can have a meaningful conversation with her is hilarious in its incredulity and also as brutal as the later scenes in which the tragic heroine endures physical harm.

Fassbinder made no secret of his love of melodrama, particularly Douglas Sirk, and at a time in which that kind of cinema was written off as facile. Through Fassbinder, I got into Sirk and learned how to inhabit melodrama for The Duke of Burgundy without having to flash any irony lights.

Belle de jour (1967)

Director: Luis Buñuel 

This is an obvious choice. I love the duality of the Deneuve character. Evelyn is very lucky in The Duke of Burgundy as she can fully express her sexual needs to her lover even if they’re not always realised with the kind of heartless panache she was hoping for. 

Belle de Jour (1967)

It only dawned on me in hindsight that The Duke of Burgundy is a long extension of the bordello scene in Belle de Jour in which the role playing butler commands his dominant mistress to start the scenario again after a lapse in performance. Watch those few minutes in Belle de Jour and you don’t really need to see The Duke of Burgundy.