In a recent Indiewire interview, director Peter Strickland requested that he not be compared to David Lynch. His reasoning? It was a limited reference for “strangeness” used, he felt, by the younger constituency of his audience. Strickland, not afraid of comparisons though, seems happy providing his audience is looking for a wider context in which to discuss his films. The Duke of Burgundy, out this week, is the most recent.
Amongst more experienced cinemagoers, the frame of reference used to describe Strickland widens with every film. When the Transylvanian set Katalin Varga was released in 2009, it was received very favourably. In his review, Peter Bradshaw drew comparisons with the Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr, citing the film’s environment and cast as similar (although he called Katalin Varga more “taut” and less “indulgent.”) At the time Strickland himself was very keen to highlight his reverence for Georgian iconoclast Sergei Parajanov, particularly the magical Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965).
When dealing with an interesting first time indie director, such critical connections are not entirely unexpected. Less predictable is the way in which Strickland’s subsequent films seem to have revived a fascination with underappreciated directors of bygone subgenres. This is precisely what has happened with film number two and three. The story for his second film Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is set inside a 70’s Italian dubbing theatre, dedicated to churning out soundtracks for Giallo films; Giallo (Italian for Yellow) refers to the 1970’s Italian horror films, based on cheap paperback novellas.
That Strickland made reference to such a distinct and overly ‘cult’ genre like Giallo helped adorn him with a reputation as a film buff’s director. Owing to the film’s use of underexposure and a heavy sound design, the David Lynch references rolled out, but the key generic touchstones were Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava. Strickland had traded-off the elegant poetics of Tarr and Parajanov for the visceral retro style of Giallo, meaning bold camera moves, prog rock soundtracks and baroque special effects.
Early on in the arrival of his latest feature The Duke of Burgundy, cinematic references were central to the discussion. The surprising name – less fashionable than the horror directors of the former film – was the late Spanish director Jess Franco. Franco was famed for his bold sex films, known for their exotic locations, stark nudity and unashamedly voyeuristic visual style. His filmography includes such outrageous titles as: Nightmares Come At Night (1970), Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973). Like Fulci his films reveal a visual flare, which is perhaps limited by the lowbrow genre in which he worked.
In these post-Tarantino years, there is a danger of treating a filmmaker like Strickland as one who exists exclusively inside a framework of intertextual references. This is a problem however, because found within each of his films is an intention not at all in line with that of their respective genre. While the Giallo genre’s major intent was to deal with spectacularly staged murders as Freudian outlets, Berberian Sound Studio is about becoming lost in a celluloid reality; tapping into the very modern theme of media overexposure. While Franco’s films primarily concern sexual stimulation, The Duke of Burgundy predominantly avoids exploitation, in favour of cyclical events that explore the dynamics of manipulation between two people; in fact the dynamic between the two female protagonists is much more reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s radical gay melodrama The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972).
But there is something else that has emerged consistently in Strickland’s films that transcends the subgenre trappings: the use of avant-garde film techniques (like those of Stan Brakhage – see Mothlight, 1963) to interrupt the film’s coherent language and assault the psyche of the viewer. Sometimes in Katalin Varga the sound design takes over from the visual narrative, zoning in on pure atmospherics, before proceeding with the story. In Berberian Sound Studio clips from the film that protagonist Gilderoy is working on (The Equestrian Vortex) interject into the story destroying the boundary between film and film-within-a-film. In The Duke of Burgundy there are stunning montages of Duke of Burgundy butterflies and their larvae, which forcefully invade the tense romantic plot between the two female lovers, creating a nightmarish first person experience.
In Strickland’s films there is room for fantasy of a bold and visionary kind too. The Duke of Burgundy is a film made up entirely of female characters that inhabit a lush and isolated world, with the plot revolving around two lesbian lovers. Like the largely male-dominated novels of writer William S. Burroughs (think 1959’s Naked Lunch or 1981’s Cities of the Red Night), the single gender dynamic creates for a reality of an entirely different nature – never banal, rich with conflict, yet somehow utopian. The film, like Burroughs’ books, asks us to look outside the heterosexual normalcy of society; this has a powerful, liberating and otherworldly effect.
Strickland’s films are very much inspired by the ideals of the radical artists of former decades. They may adopt generic blueprints of earlier styles, but only as a means of resurrecting a conscious expanding attitude towards art; an attitude that is often displaced in contemporary culture, by narrow, neat, satisfying entertainment value, which parasitically uses the facade of the ‘radical’ to repackage the familiar as something new (a staple method of advertising.)
Peter Strickland is a director keen to transport us to a place where cinema is a powerful art form that challenges our way of seeing. It is interesting to note that so far he has resisted from setting a feature in Britain. Katalin Varga was set and filmed in Romania, Berberian Sound Studio in Italy (although it was filmed in London’s Three Mills) and The Duke of Burgundy in Hungary. Sometimes you have to travel beyond your own space and time to discover something truly enlightening and cinema is the appropriate vessel for that voyage.
Read our review of The Duke of Burgundy by Rob Arnott here.