Throughout folklore, the forest is a place beyond social convention, of lawlessness and disorientation. It is home to brigands and monsters, and yet also offers refuge. The forest becomes a physical manifestation of social or spiritual alienation, where characters encounters fears and desires alike during transformative journeys. Folklorist Mara Tatar writes, “Folklore often trades in the sensational – breaking taboos, enacting the forbidden, staging transgressive desires, and exploring pathologies with uninhibited investigative energy.”1 A similar primal logic is shared in the forest of Katalin Varga (2009), The Duke of Burgundy (2014), and The Cobbler’s Lot (2018).
Peter Strickland’s use of the forest is evocative of his flirtation with various genre tropes. Folk horror2 is an important point of departure here. Adam Scovell notes that this nebulous genre maps “the evil under the soil, the terror in the backwoods of a forgotten lane, and the ghosts that haunt stones.”3 But in Katalin Varga, The Duke of Burgundy and The Cobbler’s Lot, the use of landscape is more subtly ominous, often placing characters out of time and away from the mundane. For Strickland, natural spaces isolate characters with their own fears or lingering traumas.
Katalin Varga follows a woman’s (Hilda Péter) journey into the ominous Transylvanian forest. After the paternity of her young son Orbán (Norbert Tankó) is revealed to her husband and small village, she travels to confront her rapist. Part rape-revenge drama and part folk horror fairytale, the dark heart of the forest is the embodiment of Katalin’s trauma. Though Katalin Varga is a rural film, she doesn’t enter the specific site of the forest until the film’s bloody climax. Nature seems to serve as a reminder of the inherent cruelty in the universe and that life is an often brutal struggle for survival. Though Katalin regards that deep part of the woods with horror, it also takes on a fantastical quality: in her description of the aftermath of the rape, she says the animals and other “creatures of the night” covered her with forest debris to keep her warm and protected.
In general, throughout Katalin Varga, Strickland rejects realist notions of time and place and sets modernity on the periphery. Katalin travels by horse-drawn cart and through pastoral expanses of golden fields, bleating sheep, and picturesque ruins. She and Orbaán wander increasingly far from civilisation, sleeping in barns and hillsides as they move closer to the forest grove where she was violently attacked years ago. This movement away from civilisation finds a symbolic parallel in Katalin’s savage behaviour as she becomes fixated on vengeance. The Duke of Burgundy and The Cobbler’s Lot share this sense of timelessness and departure from social order, while all three films offer the forest as a space of isolation and potential violence.
The Duke of Burgundy is set within a country estate on the outskirts of a woodland village populated only by women. Like Katalin Varga, The Duke of Burgundy makes anachronistic use of period costumes and limited technology. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) are involved in a complicated sadomasochistic relationship; Evelyn is selfish and demanding, driving her older lover into a state of quiet despair. Cynthia is an accomplished lepidopterist and their elegant home contains an extensive collection of preserved insects and butterflies. The film’s title, borrowed from a species of butterfly, emphasising the connection between natural beauty, obsession and control.
The woods in The Duke of Burgundy are a locus for desire and fear. Evelyn rides her bicycle through its trees at the beginning of her constantly repeated sadomasochistic ritual with Cynthia. The forest is also the stage for Cynthia’s recurring nightmare of accidentally killing Evelyn by trapping her in a coffin-like trunk, itself a crucial part of Evelyn’s waking fantasy. In their erotic paranoia and isolation, these woods evoke the ‘70s cult films of Jean Rollin, Jess Franco and José Larraz and their female protagonists in isolated castles and country houses, where desire is often the instigator for madness and violence. However, The Duke of Burgundy only suggests that possibility, using the forest to frame the loneliness both women feel and their mutual disappointment in their partnership.
A direct reworking of a Hungarian fairytale, The Cobbler’s Lot4 also concerns romantic disappointment and sexual transgression. With inspiration from German expressionism and the fantasy films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, such as The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), the forest is a site of artifice and obsession. Beginning “once upon a time”, it follows a frustrated cobbler, Tivadar (Károly Hajduk), who is instructed by the King (László Konter) to find “a glade in a faraway forest” where he must “retrieve a magic loosestrife from the waters” in exchange for the Princess’s (Fatma Mohammed) hand.
This he does with ease, but Tivadar is not able to resist “the raptures and temptations of the loosestrife pool”, where he is seduced by female spirits; water plants transform into women’s hair and into naked limbs, which tangle around Tivadar in an erotically unnerving sequence. The princess responds to this betrayal by slitting her own throat before rising from death to murder Tivadar when he brings flowers to her open coffin. While Tivadar and Katalin Varga find violent death in their journeys to the forest, the central relationship of The Duke of Burgundy experiences a more subtle yet tragic rupture. The forests of all three films are sites of sex and death that reveal traumas and obsessions.
- Maria Tatar, The Classic Fairy Tales, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1999, p. 140. ↩
- This category includes classics like Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), as well as other films and television shows made predominantly in England in the 1970s. Of these, Strickland would go on to direct a radio adaptation of The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy, 1972), a television episode made as part of the BBC’s Christmas ghost stories series where a team of researchers studies a Victorian mansion whose very stones may be haunted. ↩
- Adam Scovell, “Where to begin with folk horror”, British Film Institute, 26 July 2018. ↩
- Included in A Field Guide to Evil (2018), an anthology film about dark folklore. ↩