There’s a simple explanation as to why this week’s opening of the film version of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is being treated as such a big deal…beyond the fact that the books are hugely popular, of course.
That reason is: In a big-screen universe ever more dominated by superheroes, space operas and other kinds of expensive juvenile fantasies that need the widest possible audience to turn a profit, Hollywood can no longer afford to make movies about sex. Because that subject is a minefield of potential offense for many viewers (including those who seldom furrow a brow at movie violence), and because it doesn’t earn the all-important, general-access rating of PG-13 or below.
Think about it. When was the last time you saw an R-rated mainstream feature from a major American studio that had more than one fairly “explicit” (meaning, more than fully clothed heavy breathing and humid eye contact) non-jokey sex scene? Or where the only sex scene wasn’t also rapey (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), or just plain homicidal (Gone Girl)? Can’t recall? Yeah…it’s been a while.
A couple decades ago, Hollywood’s “erotic thriller” cycle, kickstarted by Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, made moderately kinky sex a box-office staple. To find anything similar these days, you’d need to look toward foreign and indie features, not to mention cable TV. So, no wonder Fifty Shades is news: It’s rare evidence that, at the multiplex, the prudes haven’t entirely won. It’s also a pretty rare mainstream American movie to flirt with BDSM, unless you count various dumb “racy” yuks in comedies and the occasional “pervy” villain in a psycho-killer thriller. Past Hollywood highlights would have to include Madonna dripping candle wax on Willem Dafoe in Body of Evidence, not to mention Rosie O’Donnell and Dan Aykroyd donning leather fetish gear in Exit to Eden. These are highlights, folks. It’s not a rich gallery.
If Shades scratches an itch you didn’t know you had, and/or you want to check out some edgier, indie-r cinematic representations as an alternative to this bona-fide pop culture event, here are a few ideas. This global selection of kink-minded ranges farther afield and further back than 2002’s Secretary, the Maggie Gyllenhaal/James Spader film based on a Mary Gaitskill story that many have cited as a filmic precursor to Fifty. (You might also look to your local arthouse for current release The Duke of Burgundy, whose tale of Sapphic dominance and submission pays homage to vintage European softcore cinema.)
The Whip and the Flesh (1963)
This Gothic amour fou tale by Italian horror master Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace) really pushed the envelope at the time for audiences expecting mere supernatural suspense, and was heavily cut in many countries. Christopher Lee drops Dracula’s cape but bears fangs of a sort nonetheless as a bad-boy aristocrat who returns to the family castle after a long absence to reclaim his fiancee (Dahlia Lavi). That she’s now his sister-in-law doesn’t stop him—nor does death, as his ghost simply continues terrorizing her via whippings both of them enjoy a little too much. With its lush costumes and gaudy color, Bava’s film is a deluxe bodice-ripper with welts.
Eden and After (1970)
After his avant-garde novels and the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad had established him as a major force in modern French culture, Alain Robbe-Grillet began directing features himself. They increasingly revealed a true fetishist’s penchant for ornate images of dominance and sadism. Particularly striking in that regard is this cryptic 1970 phantasmagoria, wherein the apparent hallucinations of some students drugged at a weird cafe culminate in elaborate S&M tableaux staged against all-white backdrops.
The Image (1975)
An expat New Yorker with a very European sensibility, Radley Metzger spent the 1960s making stylish softcore epics like The Lickerish Quartet. When hardcore arrived in the seventies, he reluctantly went into XXX features. But this version of a novel published under a pseudonym by Catherine Robbe-Grillet (wife of Alain, see above) avoided graphic sexual action while providing maximum outré titillation. Also known as The Punishment of Anne and The Mistress and the Slave, it details the apprenticeship of a young woman who’s the willing “slave” of an elegant older lesbian, who in turn “loans” her to a handsome male writer. Under any title, it’s been called one of the most intensely erotic films ever made.
Seduction: The Cruel Woman (1985)
Inspired by 19th-century Austrian free thinker Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic novella Venus in Furs, this memo from the post-punk German underground is set in a Hamburg gallery-slash-dungeon. There, mistress Wanda entertains paying customers with S&M scenes (and the occasional song) in which she dominates her lovers of both sexes. “You are what I want you to be, a person, an animal or object,” she tells one heavily shackled acolyte. From floor-licking to bloody piercings, Elfi Mikesch and Monika Treut’s highly stylized cult favorite has all the kinky basics covered.
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1999)
Afflicted with cystic fibrosis, writer and performance artist Flanagan chose to turn his daily management of poor health and a likely short lifespan (he did indeed die at forty-two) into an embrace of pain as ritual and release. Kirby Dick’s documentary portrait records some extreme acts that are most definitely not for the squeamish. But perhaps more importantly, it also gives voice to a man (and his dominatrix wife) for whom bondage and masochism were were true, necessary expressions of a self seeking transcendence.