Film · Review

Thoughts on: Peter Strickland’s Cinema

I didn’t get the chance to interview Peter Strickland,  but after a recent pre-release screening of In Fabric I was able to ask him what influenced the film’s sound design aesthetic. ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘I’d been watching a lot of those Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videos — I think they call them ASMR — and really wanted to make one of my own.’

I guess I can’t really get across in writing the sound in his voice. Like he was really trying to play off that he totally wasn’t all about that ASMR life. No judgement here Peter, if this ever finds its way to you, check out this one — it’s the best that I’ve ever found and crushing that it’s creator basically only made two before stopping.

It’s weird how you learn something about a director and realise that it’s redefined their entire output in your eyes. I first learned about ASMR from a 2013 This American Life report, this was like when podcasting was very corporate, when the top of every itunes chart was dominated by the BBC. (I mean, it probably still is, but I’m just cooler now.) So I was listening to a lot of that, and around the same time, Mark Kermode was going all hype over this new film called Berberian Sound Studio.

It’s a film about film, so of course it gets the expected praise, and also it elevates the position of genre in a very 21st century nostalgia-meets-prestige sorta way. It presages Guadanino’s Suspiria remake, a reclamation of this long-considered trashy form, deconstructing it, being loving but also an invitation to question the assumptions that permeate these movies.

So, the horror we see ain’t that of the witches in this Giallo flick that we only see the flickery glances of. It’s the shitty men who harass and mistreat their actresses, their laziness and cynicism, their profound lack of professionalism. The film casts Toby Jones as the ineffectual Englishman caught up in a country and situation that he doesn’t properly understand.

It feels at first like a filmic excuse, this poor man, witness to all these horrible things, too powerless to stop them. As the film progresses, we’re invited to consider that he may be losing himself: he starts to see himself in the film they’re editing, his lines are suddenly dubbed by an Italian actor. But maybe this ain’t no great loss, maybe it’s just him finding something inside that makes him far more suited to the world than he first thought.

He certainly shows an aptitude for it. The film offers sound up as the primary conduit of emotion, suggesting that by creating these effects he’s becoming an active participant in the violence on screen. As the letters he receives from his mother detailing their garden wildlife grow increasingly grim, so too do the tapes of countryside sounds he returns to for comfort.

It’s like trying to capture the contraction inherent in creation, something that must be keenly and emotionally felt, and yet replicable, routine. The period sound desks and all related equipment are shot reverentially, like tools of art, and we are invited to view the women providing vocal work in the same way, things to be manipulated, used, discarded.

It’s probably not okay to say that his work has incel vibes. Like that’s bad and I dunno, if I had to guess I’d say the guy fucks. But this film is about the tragedy of a noble but ineffectual man being unable to save the women around him, and weak willed enough to fall into the same cycles of abuse of his contemporaries. Yet the women are never seen except through that same self-pitying gaze, trapped in boxes, or by the oversized personas of the men surrounding them — of whom Strickland is undoubtedly one.

It’s like his next film, Duke of Burgundy which is on the surface about a dysfunctional D/s lesbian relationship, but Strickland’s own fetishism is overwhelming throughout. A film that only features women would perhaps be a powerful statement in one that had them appear prominently behind the camera. All you get here is the sense of a man playing with his dolls.

The thing is that the whole movie is about how the relationship between these women is broken, that the way they approach erotic play is failing and the lack of communication is unfulfilling for them both. The sub pushing the dom into situations where she’s clearly uncomfortable, and setting bounds for the play that are far too vague for either to find satisfaction.

But it’s impossible not to notice that that same sort of control is being executed over the form. Maybe I’m just arguing for an approach that is looser, more understanding of queer desire. The male-gaze-y-ness on show here is undeniable, but it’s all caught up in this real specific stylisation. The concept of play, of adopting roles, of capturing aspects of your behaviour and executing them at will to become someone else, these are like essential parts of the actor’s toolkit.

I don’t think the man is exploitative as a director, I’ve not heard any reports as to the case, but like it’s striking how his films mimic the structures that they depict and purport to condemn. His cinema is based upon repetition, the notion that the cycles we create are destined to repeat themselves.

In Fabric tracks a killer dress through a run of its victims, we see them enact the same mistakes that lead to their inevitable demise. It’s possibly his least stylised film on the whole, but contains within it the most outlandish elements. The dress, and the store in which it is purchased, is a strange nightmare version of his tastes. A weird sinister world of 70s kitsch inhabited by the same immaculately composed women who permeate his work.

And like, they’re the sickness that is corrupting the world. It’s weird, I dunno, sorry.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I wanted to talk about the rhythms of ASMR videos and how they are replicated by the structure of his films. The way he’ll repeat images and sounds to build this meditative sorta tone. Use that repetition to interrogate the meaning of what we’re seeing. This deliberate acknowledgement of the artificiality of the form and the nature of performance in order to set the audience slightly off kilter.

They’re all things I like, but I can’t get past this thing with his movies that they sorta replicate the structures that they condemn. Like, you don’t feel it in The Duke of Burgundy but the others have this weird obsession with the experience of being an emasculated man, and even though they condemn the artless boorishness of the common crowd, they possess a sort of relief in their own ability to manipulate women’s bodies.

Weirdly I don’t hate them though. They all speak to this terrifying and overwhelming insecurity that we all have. That if we can just project the right image then we’ll finally be once and for all fixed. Whether that’s the sexy red dress that’s gonna end up killing you, or being the perfect dom for your sub (something I’ve honestly failed at communicating before too), or retreating into your mastery of a craft so that your colleagues don’t throw you away.

It’s an insecurity I can relate to. I stopped listening to ASMR videos around the time that the complete Bob Ross collection got put on youtube and I really got into watching speedruns in order to put myself asleep and the stuff I would get from them was the same. I couldn’t handle how uncanny the things were, having someone stare into you, having them talk into you, the presumed closeness, and the insincerity with which it came across.

I couldn’t stand the playacting, the trying to connect with someone, looking into those eyes that never see you and are half away anyway. There’s so many people online who I got super close to and then we just stopped, the horror of other people is how hard it is to truly actually know them.

It just sucks when men gotta add layers of , ‘huh, women right?’ on top. If that’s even what he’s doing, I dunno.

Peter Strickland’s latest film, In Fabric, is currently screening in UK cinemas and has an impending US release by distributor A24. His two previous films, The Duke of Burgundy & Berberian Sound Studio, are variously available to stream and on home video.

Poster for Peter Strickland's latest film, In Fabric
Image courtesy of Curzon

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