Peter Strickland has forged a career from a desire to reconfigure whichever genre he works in. In this essay, Graham Williamson discusses the British director’s work…
Ask any artist which question they dread the most, and the answer is usually “Where do you get your ideas?” Ask an artist who’s worth listening to, though, and they can come up with an answer.
In an interview with the Kermode and Mayo film podcast, Peter Strickland said he was working on a family film. The reason for this sudden about-face from the reigning king of kinky, stylish, surreal horror was very simple; he had recently watched Peter Rabbit (2019, Will Gluck) and thought it was terrible.
The anecdote won a big laugh from the hosts, but underneath the flippancy, it reveals something fascinating about Strickland’s working method. Strickland’s contempt for Peter Rabbit didn’t lead him to lazily decide kids’ films are easy to make – it fired him up to create a film that would outweigh the damage he felt the James Corden-voiced child-distracter had done to culture. His guiding light might be Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim that the best way to critique a film is to make another film – although Strickland has expanded this into praising films by making films as well.
Strickland’s short films are the purest expression of his cinephilia. His debut, 1996’s Bubblegum, is described by Ronald Bergan in a 2009 Guardian article as the result of an almost religious pilgrimage to meet his idols:
“…Strickland took what little savings he had and went to New York to track down Nick Zedd, the underground film-maker behind the Cinema of Transgression manifesto, and Holly Woodlawn, one of Andy Warhol’s drag queens, to play ‘a crypto-Elvisian rockabilly’ and his ageing fan respectively.”
His more recent shorts are less overtly in thrall to past masters, but still offer concentrated doses of the influences which season his features. The ASMR sound design of 2019’s In Fabric is the central focus of his most recent short, Cold Meridian, while the homoerotic GUO4 is the result of immersing himself in Peter de Rome and James Bidgood while researching Night Voltage, a long-planned feature set in New York’s gay club scene in the 1980s.
The most obvious connection between a Strickland short and a Strickland feature is 2005’s Berberian Sound Studio, which developed into the 2012 feature of the same name. Again, the short is best appreciated as a page from the sketchbook, but its witty one-minute homage to the foleyist’s art points the way to his future career more clearly than his feature debut Katalin Varga.
Often overlooked in assessments of his career, Katalin Varga was nevertheless a success on release. Made in the Carpathian mountains for just £25,000, it played at the Berlin and Edinburgh film festivals and won a slew of admiring reviews. This writer saw it on its initial UK cinema release and was impressed by its performances, its sense of landscape and environment and its bold, long takes, while also feeling it hewed too close to the then-modish ‘slow cinema’ style of art-house filmmaking.
Rewatching it, the elements which impressed me then still impress me now, and it also feels less like an outlier in his general body of work. It is true that these long shots of fields and mountains bear little stylistic resemblance to the lavish artificial worlds, rich colours and bursts of stroboscopic editing found in Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy (2014) and In Fabric. But the sound design is every bit as meticulous, there are early roles for Strickland mainstays Fatma Mohamed and Hilda Péter, and it serves early indication of his desire to subvert genre.
Katalin Varga is a rape-revenge narrative, albeit one even more distant from the likes of I Spit on Your Grave (1978, Meir Zarchi) as Berberian Sound Studio is from Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento). The titular heroine – named, rather oddly, after a heroine of the Transylvanian labour movement – discovers that her eleven-year-old son is not the child of her husband, but the child of her rapist. Her husband reacts with uncomprehending anger, and his rejection isolates her sufficiently to make the dangerous quest to find her attacker. Yet when she does, something other than the expected bloodshed happens.
Perhaps the reason why Katalin Varga initially registered as an above-average art-house drama rather than the mission statement of a true maverick is that, in subverting one genre, Strickland lands in the middle of another. This kind of minimalist deconstruction of thriller tropes has been the international language of the art-house ever since Antonioni made L’Avventura (1960). Critics, who are normally eager to taxonomise every new microgenre, have resisted giving this genre a name, largely because the critics who enjoy such films do not want to think of themselves as succumbing to generic pleasures.
By 2009, there were an awful lot of generic slow-cinema anti-thrillers around, and Katalin Varga is comfortably better than a lot of its more acclaimed contemporaries. It has more human feeling and respect for its audience than the misanthropic little sermons that made Michael Haneke a celebrity. But it was still a surprise when we saw what Strickland did next.
A dizzying, self-reflexive film, Berberian Sound Studio offers near-inexhaustible fuel for analysis. In terms of its genre identity, it was generally read as a simple ironic commentary: a giallo about the making of a fictional giallo. But that isn’t quite the case. The title sequence for The Equestrian Vortex, an unforgettable pastiche of 1970s late-psychedelic style anchored by Broadcast’s booming, macabre score, plays at the point where we expect a title for Berberian Sound Studio itself, making it clear that it will not be easy to differentiate the levels of reality here. Neither the film nor the film-within-a-film, though, qualifies as a giallo.
In the case of The Equestrian Vortex, this is down to a common misconception. A freeform melange of witches, goblins and female torture, the film-within-a-film is designed to evoke memories of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (which is about witches and is scored by Goblin). While Suspiria shares stylistic hallmarks with Argento’s groundbreaking giallo work, its supernatural narrative clearly has no connection to the pulp crime novels whose yellowing pages gave the genre its name. This is as nothing, however, to the real departure from giallo sensibilities, which occurs in the film’s primary level of reality.
Giallo is a genre which is highly invested in psychology, but only inasmuch as it drives action. Psychology in a giallo is there to explain the actions of a murderer, it is not there to deliver the kind of Kafkaesque, simmering, internalised torment that Strickland delivers. Berberian Sound Studio is a giallo without violence, and in achieving this Strickland asks whether a giallo without violence can really be a giallo.
Indeed, when the narrative requires some sort of catharsis, Strickland eschews stabbing or strangulation in favour of purely cinematic aggression, a rapidly-edited stretch of abstraction influenced by the work of Peter Tscherkassky. Tscherkassky’s work often involves re-editing supposedly disreputable genres – horror in Outer Space (1999), pornography in The Exquisite Corpus (2015) – and Strickland’s Tscherkassky-influenced scenes can be seen as repaying the debt, allowing his experimental style to invade stories that begin as straightforward genre narratives.
After the success of Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland was briefly linked to a remake Jess Franco’s cult erotic horror Lorna the Exorcist (1974). The Duke of Burgundy can be appreciated as a wry parody of this school of 1970s European softcore, a Mad magazine Scenes We’d Like to See riff about the inhabitants of a lesbian pornotopia attending to the banal details of their everyday life in a world that isn’t designed for mundanity. Yet it also has genuine heart, a heart that can be attributed to Strickland’s recurring desire to break the genre he’s working in. If Berberian Sound Studio tells a story that’s singularly unsuited to giallo, The Duke of Burgundy similarly corrupts a genre many would consider beyond further corruption – pornography – by telling the story of a faithful, committed, monogamous relationship.
It has to be said that Strickland’s most recent feature, In Fabric, is harder to fit into this pattern of genre synthesis. When he was interviewed by Sight & Sound for the release of The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland acknowledged that he’d done a lot of pastiche and referencing in his previous films, and wondered if it was time to move on.
He also said he was working on a script about Romanian guest workers in London, which he was adamant was drawn from his desire to re-team with actors from Katalin Varga rather than any political motivation. I was amused, at the time, by the idea of Strickland making something that could be mistaken for a social realist film: would Ken Loach’s audience go for another Tscherkassky-influenced ending?
Looking back at that interview, I wondered if In Fabric – with its prominent, astonishing role for Fatma Mohammed – might be the end result of his Romanians-in-London script. If so, Strickland has moved on from subverting genres and tropes into mutating them beyond all recognition. I’m still looking forward to his family film, then, but I’m probably going to wait for the BBFC advice before I recommend it to friends with kids.
 Bergan, Ronald, “Should I buy a flat in Bracknell or make a film in Transylvania?”, The Guardian, 19th June 2009