Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014) are showing in June and July, 2019 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
“…if the film or television image seems to ‘speak’ for itself, it is actually a ventriloquist’s speech.”
—Michel Chion, Audio-Vision, 1990
In an early scene in The Duke of Burgundy, a character describes how one can tell two seemingly-identical species of butterfly apart by the sound each makes, saying, “Since these species are so visually indistinguishable from each other, the sound they produce should differentiate the two.” In a way, the statement provides a thesis for much of the cinema of Peter Strickland relative to his aesthetic forebears. According to the majority of film writing that takes either of his two features Berberian Sound Studio or The Duke of Burgundy as a subject, Strickland’s oeuvre owes something to European genre cinema—more popularly known in French as fantastique and elsewhere as "Eurohorror"—of the 1960s and 1970s. A progenitor of this genre is Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960), which established several of the staples that audiences have used to define Eurohorror since its rediscovery and reappraisal in the last fifteen years: It is not concerned as much with storytelling as it is with linking images with thoughts and feelings, and despite its modern setting it has little regard for modernity.
To frame Strickland’s films solely in this way would be reductive, however, given the breadth of his work outside of feature films—which includes experimental film, music video, and radio drama, and all of which employ deliberate abstraction to image and sound. Consider Strickland’s 1996 short Conduct Phase, which bears a strong resemblance to mid-century 16mm experimental works by Peter Gidal or Werner Nekes in its improvised footage of dogs seen in multiple exposure, or Strickland’s 2015 adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape for BBC Radio 4, which collapses diegetic and non-diegetic sound in its portrayal of audio recordings and intercuts its characters’ dialogue with droning noise and synthesized sound effects.
As with contemporaries Anna Biller, Yann Gonzalez, Bertrand Mandico, and Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, one must enter into a postmodern contract with Strickland’s material in that the language of genre films—be it sexploitation, giallo, fantastique, or otherwise—is merely a starting and not a finish line. The notion that that film language is static at all and not subject to evolution over time is in itself a kind of nostalgic thinking. Strickland’s cinema is not an emulation or homage by necessity, but an organism that developed from the same DNA and has reached a point where it can control its own evolution. “What is characteristic of the cinema,” according to Christian Metz, “is not the imaginary that it may happen to represent, but the imaginary that it is from the start.”
The dissection of midcentury genre iconography as a means of seeing how film objects and events are imaginary from the start is a major aspect of Strickland’s project, and what differentiates The Duke of Burgundy from Jess Franco’s Lorna the Exorcist (1973), for instance, is how the former extrapolates the artifice of onscreen film objects and events in the latter. Strickland achieves this in part through allusion to senses other than sight. The opening of Duke, for instance, features the credit “Perfume by Je Suis Ginzella,” and in doing so explicates film as a medium predicated primarily on sight and sound but also one interdependent with touch, smell, or taste.
Berberian and Duke exploit sound, arguably, more so than any other film by Strickland’s hand. Sound is largely how objects in the two films’ worlds manifest or adumbrate themselves, to use Edmund Husserl’s term, to their characters, so much so that these worlds would register in a fundamentally different way to both the characters and the viewer if not for sound. The former film’s setting of a sound recording studio is, naturally, conducive to dissecting the creation and register of those adumbrations, while the latter film’s setting serves to dissect the perversities one might graft onto those adumbrations. This is predicated on composer Michel Chion’s notion of text “structuring” or somehow informing vision in the cinema and vice versa. Chion’s idea of film sound tends to privilege the human voice as the primary informant to images, as with his example of an image of airplanes in the sky accompanied by a voiceover saying “the sky is clear today,” causing the viewer to focus on the sky rather than on the airplanes. “Voice” in this sense is comparable to “text” as a structuring agent to an image, whereas with Strickland, noise has greater structuring power than text and, conversely, images are required to give an arbitrary structure to sound.
In Berberian Sound Studio, English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) travels to Rome to take a job at a recording studio, where Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) oversees the sound design of Il Vortice Equestre (“The Equestrian Vortex”), a horror film—though director Santini (Antonio Mancino) insists otherwise—ostensibly about an equestrian riding school’s run-in with witchcraft. As the film progresses, Gilderoy begins to have misgivings about his work, and grows homesick.
On the surface, the dynamic between Gilderoy and his cohort is similar to that in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) in how characters are seemingly confined to a single site. With the exception of Gilderoy’s bedroom—which is later revealed to be somehow spatially and temporally connected directly to the studio—the film takes place entirely inside the studio or its corridors. At the start of the film, Gilderoy asks the studio receptionist Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou) how to go about getting a reimbursement for his flight in. She tells him he must speak to Luigi who “is in the next building,” and then promptly picks up the phone. All correspondence with anyone outside (and often inside) the studio is done electronically, reducing characters to voices in a phone or speaker. At one point, Santini accosts Gilderoy in the studio, saying: “Francesco tells me that you’re trying to escape. […] There is no reason to escape.”
Conversely, the site brings the characters closer to each other in the event of occasional power failure in the studio, which doubles as a sensory deprivation device for the film as a whole. In a scene lit solely by two candles, the film isolates the characters from all visual cues—such as the film projector and engineering consoles—while accentuating aural ones—specifically dialogue, sound effects, and applause. With no images from which to work, Gilderoy produces isolated sounds that both the characters and the viewer can only identify by assigning a text to them, be it an image, a name, or otherwise—such as “UFO.” It is in this scene where Strickland through Gilderoy demonstrates the interdependency between multiple senses in order to understand a single one. By merely saying “UFO” or reading it as text, the mind must attribute an image and/or sound to it for it to register semiologically.
Much of what the viewer sees in Berberian is in fact a byproduct of its sound design. Consider two film images strictly through sight alone, without sound: A close-up shot of Robert Shaw’s hand scratching a chalkboard in Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and another of Aldo Valletti eating human waste in Salò, or the 100 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975). Both images are interdependent with another sense in order to achieve their abject effect on the viewer—sound in Jaws and taste in Salò—and necessitate that the viewer associate what he understands on sight with that sense. Berberian works backwards in that the film for which the technicians and engineers produce sound effects exists in the abstract. The viewer never sees any footage from The Equestrian Vortex, as the film demands that the viewer visually interpret sound as an engineer might. Two recurring images in the film are predicated on sound, one being of machines that produce and record it, the other being of schematics that attempt to direct and navigate it. Objects and events are intercut with gears, spools, the lens of the film projector, and physical reels of film, but never the information on the reels. If one were to turn the video element off and merely listen to the audio the effect would be essentially the same. In that regard, Berberian operates similarly to a radio play, leaving the construction of images to the viewer’s imagination. Much of the film’s iconography, then, functions as an index of sound, describing rather than structuring the sounds the viewer hears.
Images of machines and schematics are offset by images of the people using them. Voice dubbing for The Equestrian Vortex requires the actress Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) to scream. Several actors scream and wail into microphones throughout the film, which the viewer can take as an instance of Chion’s “voice” without a text. Berberian portrays the artificiality of dialogue and spoken text informing an image vis-à-vis that of a scream informing an image in that language parses the world into easily-understandable components, whereas a scream is a regression to a pre-linguistic state and a collapse of language. One of the story arcs of Brain de Palma’s Blow Out (1981) follows a film sound studio’s attempt to record a realistic scream. In both films, the recording of screaming is followed by engineers’ laughing at the sound removed from any context.
Much of the spoken dialogue in Berberian is Italian, a language that the protagonist does not understand. The film draws a parallel between its linguistic divide and a greater ideological one—being an arbitrary divide between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” cinema that has existed in the West since at least the 1940s. In a sense, the character of Gilderoy might signify Anglophone film audiences and critics: a preference for realism and authenticity, a desire to identify with or relate to what’s happening onscreen, and a moralizing, shame-based attitude toward nudity, sex and violence. The characters of Francesco, Silvia, and others could be understood to signify film audiences and criticism of Continental Europe: the knowledge that cinema is not reality, and that there is no reason to conflate the two since one knows logically that what you see onscreen is a construct. In the scene where Gilderoy first meets Silvia, he inadvertently calls her by her character’s name, Teresa. She points to the screen and says “Teresa is there,” then points to herself and says “Silvia is here.” She can parse the construct from the reality while the film suggests that Gilderoy cannot.
Given this, sound for Gilderoy is often a mnemonic device. In his room he reads letters from his mother back home in Dorking while listening to his personal reel recordings of the mantel clock and doorbell in his mother’s house. In a sequence late in the film that takes place in near total darkness, Gilderoy passes through a corridor while the mantel clock is heard. Silvia eventually appears, lit by a single candle, while crickets and rustling leaves are heard. The scene at first gives the impression that they are outside, and it is eventually revealed to be the studio, where Gilderoy attempts to create the sensation of being back home through sound effects alone. In the following scene Gilderoy, speaking into a phone, makes another attempt to get a reimbursement for his flight to Italy and is told that the flight never took place. It is during this scene that church bells are heard on the soundtrack in a conflation of diegetic and non-diegetic sound—the bells in this case being a sound that only the audience can hear, though the film suggests that Gilderoy can hear them as well, or wishes to hear them again.
In The Duke of Burgundy, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna) live together in a remote country estate, reading books on butterflies and lepidopterology, and occasionally attending large public lectures about the same. The two are engaged in an ongoing erotic roleplay inside their house, with Cynthia in the dominant role, assigning tasks and punishments to Evelyn in the submissive role. As the film progresses, the viewer will notice that, unlike that in Berberian, the setting of Burgundy is not bound to any specific time or place, and is devoid of men and modern technology. These elements at once draw the viewer’s attention to the artificial nature of events and extrapolate the dynamic between Cynthia and Evelyn, viewing it in the abstract.
The artificiality of Duke has much in common with that in the films of Jess Franco from the early to mid 1970s. Strickland takes Franco’s artifice and portrays it literally, taking his cue not so much from Franco’s iconography but from the ambiguous nature of his films’ collective landscape. That ambiguity materializes in unique ways, particularly in the disconnect between sound and image. A scene in Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) features a cabaret performance between Soledad Miranda and Beni Cardoso where the former manipulates the latter as if she were a mannequin. In a scene late in The Hot Nights of Linda (1974), a gramophone plays music after Lina Romay places a needle on its turntable and starts a record that isn’t there. One might compare both scenes to one taking place in a lecture hall in Duke, where an audience listens intently to the sound of differing butterfly species though a loudspeaker. The viewer sees mannequins seated in the audience, and then a rapid montage of still images of butterflies. The conflation of real and fake bodies, together with the complication of sound and image—be it the collapse of diegetic and non-diegetic sound or the use of sound as a semiological field through which the mind might structure it with images—originate for Strickland, in part, with Franco.
That the world depicted in The Duke of Burgundy is populated solely by women recalls the setting of the 1915 novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, about a utopian world where no men exist, or Nicola Griffith’s 1993 novel Ammonite, about a planet occupied only by women ever since a virus had eliminated its entire male population. Upon the film’s release in 2014, Strickland was intentionally vague with explanations for its setting aside from saying that it was ultimately intended as a fable or fairy tale, untethered to any specific social context such as economic class (Cynthia was a hairdresser in an early version of the script). The mechanics of “how” and “why” as they pertain to the film’s setting are immaterial, though they do function as a device to dissect the nature of relations between sex partners and how that manifests itself in domestic routine.
In that regard, the film is not unlike Carlos Saura’s Honeycomb (1969), about an escalating role-play between spouses within the confines of their house, or Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), about a wealthy woman who in the process of daylighting as a prostitute discovers new aspects of her own sexuality. In an interview with Christopher Bell in January 2015, Strickland stated “Belle de Jour has a scene that in hindsight I realized is the seed for Duke. It’s when the client playing the butler in the bordello is getting told off by the madame. She gets a line wrong and he asks her to do it again […].” The protagonist of Buñuel’s film, Séverine, gradually realizes that she is a masochist, and the film ultimately demonstrates how sexual pleasure often has less to do with notions of love or romance than it does with one’s objectification of one’s partner, or what Jacques Lacan described in 1970 with the statement “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel” (“there is no sexual relationship”), meaning that we are not necessarily attracted to our sexual partner but to the object that we make of him or her or them.
Where Belle de Jour alludes to Séverine’s paraphilia—being sexual arousal by a particular object or event—The Duke of Burgundy produces a landscape that dramatizes the idea of sexual arousal. A scene in Belle de Jour features a client who shows Séverine the inside of a box that contains something, never revealed, that produces a buzzing noise. Determining what is in the box is beside the greater point that the other women who work in the brothel are repulsed by it and Séverine is not. What turns one person off will turn someone else on, and how fortunate would you be to find someone who is turned on by the same things as you. Consider also the film’s recurring sound of a ringing bell—be it on a horse’s collar or the one rung by the same client—which as a sound alone has no meaning yet in Séverine’s mind is an erotically-charged noise.
One might imagine Evelyn in The Duke of Burgundy to be a natural progression from Séverine in Belle de Jour. Taking his cue from Buñuel, Strickland dissects the erotic component of sound design. A recurring motif throughout Duke is of lids and doors closing dramatically. The sound of a lid slamming shut as a mere sound in the abstract—such as that sound heard on a tape recording—has no meaning, or in the case of the film, erotic value to the listener without a context. The sound of a lid slamming shut as a sound in the knowledge that it has an “author,”expressive intonation, and addressee, can have erotic value within the parameters of BDSM. Cynthia and Evelyn are eventually visited by a character known only as the Carpenter (Fatma Mohamed again), whose description of the experience of being inside a customized bed that can trap one partner in a coffin-like structure underneath another partner emphasizes—in what would be the absence of any visual stimuli—sound as a major component of that experience (“…customers find the slamming effect of the bed closing down on them very dramatic”) and how it would relate to the erotic event (“…it’s a critical moment for my customers when they’re about to be locked up for the night”).
One of the models Strickland used in writing Duke was Cleo Übelmann’s short film Mano Destra (1986), which is comprised largely of static shots and still images of corridors and rooms containing cages, boxes, harnesses, and the like, together with close-up shots of isolated body parts, such as a bound arm or leg. The viewer also hears a sequence of recurring sounds, including keys undoing a lock and footsteps of someone wearing heels hitting a floor. While these sounds do not match the images, they are nevertheless associated with them semiologically. Images of women bound with rope and in compromising positions are offset by the sound of footsteps, dissonant on the surface, yet together suggesting a wider landscape of BDSM that is neither seen nor heard by the viewer. Duke creates a similar dissonance between sound and image by portraying its construction. Late in the film, Cynthia binds Evelyn’s hands with rope and places her inside a chest. While she is inside, the viewer sees what Evelyn cannot: Cynthia hitting certain marks on the floor in a performance in high heels, showing how the effect of sensory deprivation and restraint is created.
What such artificiality demonstrates is that sound in Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy exists largely for its own sake, and does not always operate necessarily within a semiological system. Sound for Strickland can operate as a type of cognitive noise comparable to Velimir Khlebnikov’s notion of pure sounds or Vladimir Mayakovsky’s non-distinction between poetic sense and nonsense: sound as an impression that is not reduced to a textual register. To intuit that the church bells in Berberian or the butterfly drone in Duke (or the use of washing machine noises in In Fabric or the silent film conceit in The Cobbler’s Lot) signify something by necessity rests upon the notion that a filmic sign is stable in the first place. Much of this is due to how Berberian and Duke undermine basic narrative codes through their characters’ construction of artificial environments, be they soundscapes or erotic scenarios. When Silvia meets Gilderoy “outside” among cracking leaves and crickets and when Cynthia confronts Evelyn about a possible affair she may have had, in both instances the viewer intuits that the context in which the exchange takes place could be a fabrication—one explicated late in Berberian Sound Studio, in a scene where one character implores to another: “It’s just a film, you’re a part of it. You can see how all this is put together.”