While little more than glorified, de-fanged piece of Twilight fan-fiction, 50 Shades of Grey has initiated a very public discussion on sadomasochism that has arguably never been so loud, so divisive and so mainstream. Whereas teenage girls from the past relied on the likes of D.H. Lawrence for kicks, and suburban moms leaned on Fabio-tastic romance novels for titillation, a new generation of (mostly) women are getting riled up by the handsome, domineering Christian Grey and his bag of sadomasochistic tricks. With 50 Shades of Grey finally in theaters, here’s a look at a rich history of films that similarly dealt with the ideas, pleasures and pitfalls of sadomasochism.
Mario Bava is no stranger to fetishistic imagery, a large bulk of his filmography rich with textures, gyrating bodies and mysterious velvety passageways. Sex and horror are deeply intertwined, and beautiful heroines often found themselves the object of sexual and violent lusts. Though The Whip and the Body is not Bava’s greatest work, it is his most sexually charged. The sadistic son of a nobleman (Christopher Lee) is exiled from his home after his former lover, a servant girl, commits suicide. He makes a return at the bequest of his brother and immediately transfers his mad sadistic lust to his brother’s wife. Even after Kurt is found murdered shortly thereafter, the strange erotically charged visits to the wife don’t stop… The titular whip becomes the central image of the film, and rather than just being a symbol of fear, it becomes an organ of violent lust. The apparent victim is also not so unwilling—in the role of Nevenka, Daliah Lavi reacts with orgasmic fury to her lashings. Causing quite a stir at the time of its release, the co-dependent nature of this violent relationships was not lost on audiences or critics.
With a Sundance release in 2002, Secretary quickly became notable for its somewhat unconventional take on the romantic comedy. With a wispy Maggie Gyllenhaal in the lead role, her transformation from self-abusing masochist to active participant in a sadomasochistic love affair is entrancing. Enough fantasy to dispel any criticism of the apparent lack of safe words, the film does appropriately transition from having Mr. Grey (a role tailor made for James Spader, that similarly makes you wonder if the only two works of fiction the author of 50 Shades of Grey had been exposed to was this and Twilight) hold the power in the relationship to having Lee take control later in the film. This point hits the nail on the head in understanding that it is the submissive that ultimately holds the most power in sadomasochistic relations. While suffering from some vagueness and perhaps naivety in terms of what a healthy sadomasochistic relationship really looks like, Secretary nonetheless is perhaps the most important mainstream informer into sadomaso relations before 50 Shades of Grey entered the popular consciousness.
Pasolini removes the concept of pleasure from sadomasochism in Salò: 120 Days of Sodom, instead utilizing the Marquis de Sade’s text of the same name to explore the nature of sadism as it connects to abuses in power. It seems almost necessary to include it, as it is perhaps the most infamous adaptation of De Sade’s work every committed to screen. Pasolini’s vision of sadism utilizes the imbalance of power to create a film that is the antithesis of pleasurable. Perhaps the most damning film against unyielding political power ever made, Salò portrays a fascist elite who find gratification in the humiliation, objectification and abuse of their young and poor captives. Using fetishism and sadism as a metaphor for greater and escalating abuses of power, the film remains one of the most difficult explorations of hatred, greed and privilege to be put to screen. Forty years after its initial release, the film’s parade of humiliations, including force-feeding shit, remain barely watchable—it is a confrontational work that asks the audience to be challenged with the uncomfortable truths of the horrors that humanity is capable of.
A bizarre and entrancing experiment in sadomasochistic desire, The Duke of Burgundy is a dark comedy about a pair of lepidopterists who spend their days engaged in sadomasochistic games. At first glance, we are witness to a one-sided situation of sadistic abuse. Evoking the style of Italian genre films of the 1960s and 1970s, the environment is rich with textures, sounds and sensations—the women are perfectly coiffed and dressed. From the beginning, we are presented with a situation of high fantasy, a realm of the imagined and decorative female. The idea, though, of passive and decorative femininity is continually subverted and stripped away. While many scenes push the boundaries of so-called good taste, the film is centrally about a romantic relationship and the trials and tribulations of how sex fits into that equation. Strangely heartfelt and consistently funny, the film has already received numerous accolades since it premiered at TIFF in 2014 and has only further raised Peter Strickland’s stock as one of the most exciting working filmmakers today.
The father of 20th century sadomasochism, Alain-Robbe Grillet made a career on screen and in literature devoted to exploring the many facets of sadomasochistic philosophy. While not his first film, Trans-Europ Express is perhaps his most acclaimed work. An avant-garde—almost surrealist—portrayal of a relationship in flux, Trans-Europ Express beautifully examines the fantasy landscape in which sadomasochism thrives. Images the chained actress, Marie-France Pisier , have become the iconic marker of the film and an exciting evocation of the fantastic imagined possibilities for sexual desire. A dark comedy about the nature of creativity, the film is a meta textual narrative about a filmmaker inventing a narrative about fellow occupants of the Trans-Europ Express; part sex romp, part thriller-intrigue, the film is constantly shifting tone and perspective. At the heart of this is the sadomasochistic relationship between the two leads. With the ever-shifting balance of power between woman and man, the film portrays sex as a game: sadomasochism allows for an exploration of gender-based power while also subverting it. Alain Robbe Grillet’s wife, Catherine Robbe-Grillet also appears in the film—now in her 80s she is also an author of erotic philosophy/fiction and the most famous dominatrix in France.
Much as Pasolini attempted to deconstruct the evils of fascism through sadomasochism, Liliana Cavani with The Night Porter attempted a similar feat. Fifteen years after the end of World War Two, a former Concentration Camp SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) runs into a former victim, a child-prisoner in his concentration camp while he is now working as a meek night porter at a Vienna hotel. Utilizing flashbacks which reveal the violent and sexual nature of their previous meeting, they resume a charged affair that revisits the trauma and painful power imbalance of many years earlier. Controversial since it was first screened—Ebert awarded it just one star, The New York Times referred to it as a “piece of junk”—the film has nonetheless found staying power for better or for worse among critical circles. As if caught in that initial time period of trauma, the pair continue their sadomasochistic relationship, the violent nature of their pairing escalates while the pair slowly starve. Though through a very unconventional lens, The Night Portertackles the convoluted co-dependency of humiliation, survival and victimhood in the contemporary era. While daring (perhaps even occasionally silly), the film is ultimately held together by its actors, as Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are not only two of the most talented actors in cinema history, but among the sexiest as well.
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is perhaps the most contentious and elusive film about sadomasochism on the list, but nonetheless deserving. While not overtly about sadomasochism, or even a sadomasochistic relationship, Clive Barker’s work takes on a uniquely female point of view of pain as pleasure. While this portrays a particularly negative, and potentially abusive relationship, part of Clive Barker’s interest as an artist is his ability to operate in the shadows of right and wrong. While his world is populated by monsters and fantasy, the narratives and characters are rooted in adult issues and relationships. There is something very confrontational about the body horror of Hellraiser, which is shot with aggressive physicality and under a layer of gauze—a sumptuous and disconcerting soft focus. In some ways an early example of the appropriator of pornographic terms and techniques in its construction, the film features some truly stunning gore “money shots.” Not content to merely cater to our baser instincts though, the gore and violence of the film is always intricately layered with intentions and desires. The obsessive and violent nature of the central relationship is explored on the subconscious level, revealing dark longings for pain as a pleasurable and excitable experience.
Based on the true story about a young prostitute who castrated and then murdered her noble lover, In the Realm of the Senses blurs the line between pornography and art by featuring unsimulated sexual acts. Blessed with overtly sensitive skin, and insatiable lust, young maid Sada Abe captures the attention of her wealthy patron, and they strike up a highly obsessive and destructive affair. At first glance, the power balance situates the male in the point of power. He is older, wiser and in control; she seems frail and at his mercy. Things escalate quickly though, her lust driving him to starve himself and to engage in increasingly masochistic behavior, with her in the position of power and control. The obsessive nature of their relationship is explosive and defiant. While they are escalating their excitement through acts like choking and ultimately threats of knife play, at its heart there is a sense of rebellion to their acts—even Oshima’s commitment to use unsimulated sex is a challenge to convention and traditional roles, blurring our perception of art and reality.
Michael Haneke’s confrontational filmmaking does not take sides in its portrayal of the apparently unbalanced lead character. Isabelle Huppert stars as masochistic piano teacher who strikes up an affair with a much younger student. As Erika, Huppert plays a woman with a hard-edge, immensely talented and proud but trapped by an overbearing mother and an inability to unwind. As explored in the film, masochism is not about giving up power, but rather exercising it. Like many of the submissive masochists on the list, it is Erika who dictates very concisely exactly what kind of sex and violence she wants. Huppert’s intense and powerful performance showcase how the physical pain and humiliations connect with an otherwise mysterious inner world. Haneke’s filmmaking, always blistering with the mysteries that lie behind the eyes is at its height here, in one of his most difficult and mysterious cinematic experiences. As always, Haneke challenges the viewer to look away knowing very well there is a dark pleasure in seeing something that is not meant to be seen. In many ways, Haneke’s work which pushes and pulls between pleasure and pain mirrors the very subject at hand.
Perhaps the most iconic sadomasochistic film of all time, Belle de Jour defined the surreal fantasy of the experience through the eyes of a precocious and adventurous lead. The film utilizes sadomasochism on the peripheries of a comfortable reality, as we move in and out of dreams and never get a firm grip on what really might be happening. In the classical sense of surrealism, Buñuel renders the familiar unrecognizable and displaced. Radical even today, this effect questions the comfort and reliability of institutions such as religion, gender and marriage. Belle de Jour is a startling work in fantasy, with Severine (no coincidence that our lead shares the name with the titular character of Venus in Fur) as our dream weaver. Unsatisfied and repressed, Severine embraces her wild festishism to become a secret prostitute while her husband is away at work. While most of the film’s most vibrant moments of sadomasochist fantasy take place in the world of dreams, Buñuel’s unstable reality reveal a rift between public perceptions of sexuality and private ones. With much of the film taking place, often literally, behind closed doors, the apparently unconventional sadomasochistic desire becomes a rather powerful image of the secret life we all harbor in our own interiority.
Justine Smith is a Montreal-based freelance writer and film editor at Sound on Sight. You can follow her onTwitter.