A Brief Survey of BDSM on the Big Screen

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This weekend, Roman Polanski’s reimagining of David Ives’ play, inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s erotic novella Venus in Furs, arrives in theaters. In Polanski’s Venus in Fur , Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski’s wife, in a casting choice ripe for interpretation) takes on the adapted role of the book’s cruel Wanda von Dunajew. Mathieu Amalric co-stars as a writer-director staging a modern-day production of Sacher-Masoch’s work who becomes obsessed with Seigner’s character, reminiscent of the enslaved Severin in the 1870 novel. Slant’s review reveals that the film is reminiscent of the director’s early work, featuring a “specific nexus of humor and horror, a sense that fleetingly returns here, in a film that feels maniacally inspired by the joys of perversity.” We felt compelled to explore other films that delve into the psychosexual realm of power exchange relationships — cinema that examines gender and cultural dynamics, sexual politics, or exists for pure titillation.

Lies

Jang Sun-woo followed up his controversial Bad Movie about Seoul street kids with an adaptation of the banned book Tell Me a Lie, by Jang Jung II. South Korean authorities imprisoned the author, and the director’s retelling was also shunned, banned for a time in South Korea. The story centers on a teenage virgin, “Y,” and a 38-year-old sculptor, “J,” who embark on an obsessive and sadomasochistic affair. First-time actors Tae Yeon Kim and Sang Hyun Lee intensify the naturalism of Lies, their interactions at once manic, touching, and playful. The narrative about Y choosing to seek a partner to lose her virginity to as both of her sisters were raped when they were young, is a provocative thread about cultural violence.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

Continuing his study of power struggles in relationships and cultural oppression (a series of films that boast an array of memorable female characters), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant explores this dynamic by confining the drama to the lavish bedroom of the glamorous titular character — a kind of dreamland created by the icy femme fatale. A smug and successful fashion designer, Petra maintains a sadistic relationship with her assistant Marlene. A love triangle ensues when a young model enters the picture, and the hysteria of Petra’s self-obsessed world unfolds.

Verfolgt

Angelina Maccarone’s 2006 film, the English title an obvious mark of its subject (Punish Me), deals with the kinky relationship that develops between a smug, confused teen and an older woman, his probation officer. Each emotionally detached in their own way, the dominant/submissive coupling is initiated by the younger Jan to Elsa’s shock, though their sessions eventually empower her to take total control. Elsa’s current relationship wears on her, so the tenderness that follows her meetings with Jan are as necessary and nurturing as they become for the young man seeking a connection to the world around him. The relationship is handled with convincing sincerity and refreshing realism.

Secretary

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader give career-best performances in Steven Shainberg Secretary. She plays a troubled young woman turned submissive for Spader’s domineering lawyer. “Because S/M involves postures that are absorbing for the participants but absurd to the onlooker, we tend to giggle at the wrong times,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 2002 review.

The movie’s humor comes through the close observation of behavior. It allows us to understand what has happened without specifying it. The lawyer and secretary have subtle little signals by which they step out of their roles and sort of wink, so they both know that they both know what they’re doing. Their behavior, which is intended to signify hostility, eventually grows into a deeper recognition of each other’s natures and needs. That of course leads to affection, which can be tricky, but not for them, because both suspect there is no one else they’re ever likely to meet who will understand them quite so completely.

The Image

Based on Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s (Jean de Berg) 1956 novel L’Image, and the only hardcore film that Radley Metzger directed under his real name (instead of the XXX pseudonym Henry Paris), The Image is a fascinating product of the porno chic era. Blending art-house aesthetic with explicit sex, the well-crafted crudeness of Metzger’s sadomasochistic odyssey teeters between brutal and elegant to bizarre effect.

Histoire d’O

Based on the best-selling novel by Dominique Aury (written under the pen name “Pauline Reage”), Histoire d’O (The Story of O) was given the softcore touch by Emmanuelle director Just Jaeckin (originally offered to surreal maestro Alejandro Jodorowsky). Baby-faced Udo Kier stars as the unrelenting Rene who sends his fashion photographer girlfriend (Corinne Cléry) away to train as an obedient submissive, with the hope of strengthening their relationship. Things get complicated when she is traded to Rene’s stepbrother Sir Stephen (Anthony Steel in the role, originally offered to Christopher Lee), a master of domination. The film capitalizes on the novel’s controversy and cinema’s lax period of sexually explicit films. However, some parallels have been drawn between O’s empowerment as a submissive and the era’s women’s rights movement (a stretch, probably).

Noviciat

American film critic Noël Burch directed this 1964 short about a peeping Tom who is caught spying on a women’s self-defense class and is enslaved by the school’s instructor as punishment. Shot in black and white with fetishistic close-ups, the man’s increasing humiliation is detailed through menial tasks (combing the woman’s hair, lacing her boots) and his position as the class’ human self-defense dummy. Burch’s voyeuristic short is available to watch online.

Sebastiane

Exploring the sexual/spiritual agony and ecstasy between two Roman soldiers, Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane puts a biblical spin on leather and whips. Portraying the life of Christian martyr Saint Sebastian through a homoerotic lens (depicted with unabashed sensuality and longing), Jarman’s controversial epic centers on the sadomasochistic relationship between Sebastiane (an exiled guard) and the captain of a remote coastal garrison who grows obsessed with the pacifist man — and is ultimately rejected by him. Ahead of its time, the film is a hallmark of queer cinema.

The Night Porter

Director Liliana Cavani wrote the controversial Night Porter — about a strange, sadomasochistic relationship between a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi officer, who continue their affair after leaving the camps — reportedly based partly on her own interviews with a Holocaust survivor. Frequently accused of being exploitative and sensationalist rather than symbolic of the brittle psyche of post-war Europe, The Night Porter remains as divisive as ever.

Salò

Pier Paulo Pasolini’s depraved 1975 opus Salò, the last film the director completed before his brutal murder, is based on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom — about four wealthy male libertines who indulge in a months-long orgy of debauchery and death. Set during the last days of Mussolini’s fascist regime in the Republic of Salò, Pasolini explores corrupt politics alongside perverse sexuality. The film, not for the faint of heart, remains banned in several countries to this day.