Gender Divide in Diptych: Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy

Gender Divide in Diptych: Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy first published (in a shorter version) in July 2019 by Senses of Cinema, and also in the book Strickland (2019, Queensland Film Festival)

The Berberian Sound Studio – a labyrinthine post-production complex in 1970s Italy to which all the events of Berberian Sound Studio are restricted – is a male world, and Peter Strickland’s film traces the confused attempts of English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) to negotiate where, how and why he fits in this masculine domain.

There are women in the Studio. The building’s gatekeeper is the officious receptionist Elena (Tonia Sotiripoulou), and Gilderoy’s work surrounds him with female voice artists contributing to The Equestrian Vortex the heard-but-not-seen witchcraft-and-torture picture whose soundtrack Gilderoy is helping to craft. Most of the characters in The Equestrian Vortex are female too, but a male priest and a priapic goblin control their fates, respectively subjecting these women to graphic torments and murder in both the past and the present.

Similarly in the studio, the shots are called by the film’s domineering producer Francesco and director Giancarlo Santini (Cosimo Fusco and Antonio Mancino respectively). “This is not a horror film, this is a Santini film”, the director insists, ensuring that his own very male imprimatur is all over the horrific female-focused sadism of The Equestrian Vortex. Yet as Francesco tells Gilderoy, “You’re part of it”. Both Santini and Francesco recognise the essential rôle that this meek, easily cowed Englishman is playing in the film’s infernal engineering, even if Gilderoy himself remains unsure of his standing. Meanwhile, the on-screen outrages committed against women bleed into the hermetic space of the studio, as the voice actresses are bullied, exploited and abused.

The man’s world of Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

Gilderoy presents himself as an aloof outsider to all this depravity, retreating into his Englishness as a shield of personal integrity, and seeking escape in his recordings and dreams of the simpler rural life back home with his mother. Yet after he has – twice – succumbed to temptation, eating the forbidden fruit (a watermelon slice, a seeded grape) offered by male colleagues, Gilderoy becomes a part of Santini’s satanic vision, not just repeatedly recording and mixing women’s throat-shredding screams, but also, when the two foley artists fall ill, himself creating realistic sound effects for an endless-seeming succession of atrocities enacted upon the female body.

Gilderoy is in a state of fugue-like denial about his own aberrant masculine drives. His profession may be sound, but as Gilderoy follows Elena down the studio’s corridor, a sly POV shot focused exclusively on her lined stockings and bottom reveals his gaze to be as male as the wandering eyes of his colleagues. As the post-production stretches on interminably and even has to be restarted after mistreated actress Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) vindictively destroys the sound reels, there are hints that the linguistic alienation and native reserve behind which Gilderoy hides may merely be defensive masks from a man who in fact speaks fluent Italian, has not just flown in on the last plane, and is more than capable himself of being cruel to women (using deafening feedback as his torture implement of choice). In Strickland’s meta-horror, Gilderoy’s sacrificed innocence and embarrassed complicity offer an uncomfortable mirror to any male viewer who engages with fictive spectacles of misogyny.

Doubling in the gendered worlds of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012)…

Berberian Sound Studio is a film of doubles. It has a repeating, bi-partite narrative structure, as The Equestrian Vortex‘s dub tracks end up being recorded twice. The film-within-a-film comes with its own twinned timelines of past and present, and reflexively mirrors the themes of Strickland’s own film. Gilderoy is himself schizophrenically conflicted. And the Studio’s male, misogynistic echo chamber also brings clear divisions of gender into the mix.

…and more doubling in The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

The all-female decay of Strickland’s next film yields a similarly hermetic if opposite world where characters’ gendered power games once again lead to maddening, spiralling decline. Cycles dominate the life of Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and her older companion Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in The Duke of Burgundy, whether the bikes which are the only means of transport in their village, or their regular attendance at local entomological lectures, or the repeating BDSM scenarios in their domestic arrangement. Yet Cynthia is ageing – “it’s all downhill from here”, she comments – and longs for a cosier, less elaborately fetishistic form of sexual bonding, while Evelyn’s eye is straying to another woman’s leather boots, and a winter chill is settling over the pair. “I can change,” insists Evelyn. She even spends these cold nights confined within a wooden trunk, as though in chrysalis and awaiting metamorphosis like the insects which the whole community obsessively studies, or like the butterfly species – known colloquially as ‘Duke of Burgundy’ – which the film’s title advertises.

“Just go back to the beginning again,” says Evelyn when Cynthia fluffs the lines in their rôle play. The Duke of Burgundy tells the risqué tale of a couple’s attempt to renew their relationship. Ultimately they succeed, returning like the seasons to where they started – but inscribed in this cyclical idyll is a contrasting, linear trajectory of decline and death. For in this man-free microcosm, there are also noticeably no children. Evelyn and Cynthia’s neighbour Lorna (Seventies sexploitation star Monica Swinn) is alone with nobody to look after her in her old age, while the dwindling audience for the insect lectures is conspicuously supplemented with showroom dummies. So the hamlet may be a women’s world, but as there are no mothers, it is no matriarchy – just older and younger female residents engaged in power games that are serial, if not quite endless. For the sense of an ending is built into this insular society, which has a future that cannot extend beyond another two generations at most, with morbidity and mortality an inevitable part of its terminal life cycle.

The actual Duchy of Burgundy met its end when its last Duke, Charles the Bold, died in 1477 with no male heir. Subsequently, while Charles’ only daughter Mary claimed the now empty title ‘Duchess of Burgundy’, Louis XI annexed the Duchy’s territories into France. So The Duke of Burgundy is, literally, a male title – but even as it constitutes the film’s first and only reference to a man, it also encodes a history of male extinction and qualified female succession. For this radical women-only alternative to patriarchy ushers in a finite number of returning summers before everyone will end up mere insect fodder.

© Anton Bitel