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The dark crimes of sadomasochistic cinema

Last weekend I watched Dark Crimes, a mediocre detective movie inspired by a much more interesting true case. The story is set in a terribly dreary Krakow, where a similarly dreary policeman is convinced of having found the culprit of a cold homicide case and goes overboard in the attempt of getting a confession. What makes it interesting is how the criminal is shady, amoral, odious but also a brilliant intellectual – who proudly described the killing in one of his books. And, as we can see in the trailer, a hardcore sadomasochism club is somehow involved.

The strongest element in the film is Jim Carrey, who like every comedy actor proves to be amazing in dramatic roles. The rest is forgettable, beginning with the messy screenplay and the desperate attempt at making an “intelligent” movie. The dialogues and characters would aspire to be Brechtian but only come out as stilted; the philosophical touches seem to have been copied from the diary of a fourteen-years-old Goth; the direction is slooooow. And then you have the transgression, phoned in by the often-naked presence of Charlotte Gainsburg (daughter of Serge, a notorious lecher she sang a song laden with incestuous double-entendres when she was but a child) and by the above-mentioned S&M club. Which we must talk about.

The place is only shown for mere seconds. It is a derelict industrial building, where the accused informs us that «important men rape and mistreat junkie prostitutes who only care for money». One of their pastimes is suggested to be shooting shotguns while aiming inches from the head of a blindfolded and shaking girl. Seriously.
The club certainly represents the most disgusting side of the human race: a sophomoric metaphor veering into A Serbian Film territory. Fortunately for us, right after absolving its role of shouting «see how raw and perverse we are? See? See?» in the face of the audience we don’t see it anymore.

Since I am an actual BDSM practitioner, however, I don’t subscribe very easily to this vision of perverted villains. I devoted my whole life to explaining how alternative sexualities don’t look anything like that squalor; to provide hard scientific data proving how extreme eroticism is all but unhealthy; to repeat how kink culture defuses the pathological drifts of domination and submission instincts; to organize parties where good manners reign supreme. And yet the misunderstanding remains: partly due to ignorance, partly due to rough-hewn media products, too many people still believe that only madmen and delinquents can have a passion for certain games (which, in case it needs repeating, have nothing to do with gunshots and rape). And mark my words, nobody likes being equated with criminals.

Such prejudice is shamelessly perpetrated in every form. From the lazy reporter mistaking violence for an erotic game, to the best-seller where you have to be a victim of child abuse to be a kinkster, this messy view of sexuality surrounds us on every side, fueling incomprehension. BDSM doesn’t even exist on the silver screen, where the only known form of kink is sick sadomasochism. Cinema is unfortunately one of the most influential culprits, often not out of malice but of stylistic need. The principle is the same by which a director in need of establishing a dangerous religious fundamentalist character in just a few shots will probably go for a keffiyeh-wearing Muslim; if a hacker is needed they will show a geeky loser; a spiritual master will easily be an ancient Oriental. These are stereotypes, sure, but they do come handy for narrative purposes. This is also why cinema has long had issues with representing minorities, so much so that screenwriters indicate certain character with stock names: the Magical Negro, the Elegant Italian Mafioso, the Conflicted Gay, the Cat Lady, the Autistic Genius and so on. Getting rid of them ain’t easy, though: it took 120 years to occasionally see blockbusters featuring women who could pass the Bechdel test, and movies with strong female protagonists are still actively boycotted by some reactionary audiences.

Going back to our case, when it is not used as a gag (Italy has been long plagued by the «let’s get freaky» catchphrase of a Carlo Verdone character), alternative sexuality is mostly played on the big screen as a metaphor for inner conflicts and struggles. To prove this, I have listed below a fairly complete set of topical movies. They are definitely unfit to get acquainted with actual extreme eroticism, but they are an interesting resource to understand where some longstanding prejudices come from. Or you can always go online, where you can find hundreds of videos showing every sort of practice, both simulated and real. Some of them are even technically great, but watching them you’d better bear in mind – just like with traditional sex – that reality is often very different than what we see in porn.

 

Title

Year

Director

Plot

 

9½ Weeks

1986

Adrian Lyne

A sex fling between New Yorkers turns into a lesson on sensuality with a bittersweet ending

Amorestremo

2001

Maria Martinelli

An investigation on the death of an aspiring slave leads to the discovery of the – entirely imaginary – underworld of extreme sex. Winner of the “worst film of 2001” award

Belle de Jour

1967

Luis Bunuel

To find her balance, a cold bourgeois wife leads a double life as a prostitute specialized in perversions. A great classic

Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The

1972

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Petra dominates her maid and lover without mercy, but when she is left by the latter for a man, it takes only one kind gesture for the disappointed maid to abandon her as well

Boxing Helena

1993

Jennifer Lynch

To make his ideal woman fall in love with him, the best a surgeon can come up with is to cut off her limbs to make her depend on him. A dreamlike trip on the objectification of the partner

Cruising

1980

William Friedkin

An undercover cop enters the New York gay BDSM scene to track a serial killer, and discovers a dangerously attractive world

Duke of Burgundy, The

2014

Peter Strickland

Two women in love in a dreamlike village of sadomasochistic female entomologists. A reflection on who really holds the power in a power relationship

East Palace, West Palace

1997

Yuan Zhang

A brutal cop arrests a submissive gay man resulting in the explosion of an impossible passion

Fifty Shades of Grey

2015

Sam Taylor-Johnson

The film adaptation of the novel. Just like the book, it has very little to do with BDSM but has greatly influenced its perception among the general public

Flower and snake

1974

Masaru Konuma

A nice film adaptation of the Japanese equivalent ofStory of O. A must-see for kinbaku lovers

Gradiva

2009

Alain Robbe-Grillet

A thinker visiting a dreamlike version of Morocco loses himself in a sadomasochistic delusion as he uncovers his primal instincts

Graphic sexual horror

2009

Barbara Bell & Anna Lorentzon

Enlightening documentary about the “backstage” of the Insex extreme bondage website

Gwendoline

1984

Just Jaeckin

A sort of fetish Indiana Jones, taken from the famous comic strip by John Willie. The apotheosis of BDSM B-movies

In the Realm of the Senses

1976

Nagisa Oshima

The passion between a Master and his concubine falls into a spiral of jealousy and possession breaking every boundary of their sadomasochistic relationship

Libertine, the

1969

Pasquale Festa Campanile

A young widow discovers her husband’s perversions and decides to explore every possible erotic experience to get her revenge. An interesting document of what was once considered outrageous

Love to Eternity

1972

Marco Ferreri

She finds an island with a man and a dog, and kills the latter out of jealousy. Then she happily agrees to reduce herself to a bitch for him. The romanticism of absolute belonging

Maîtresse

1977

Barbet Schroeder

A thief breaks into a prodomme’s dungeon and a weird love story begins. The film itself is mediocre, but the Mistress is very realistic

Night Porter, The

1974

Liliana Cavani

A Holocaust survivor finds her cruel jailer and lover, now reintegrated into society. The passion rises again, the roles are inverted and a deathly dance begins

Notorious Bettie Page, The

2005

Mary Harron

A partial yet quite accurate biography of the famous fetish pin-up model

Piano Teacher, The

2001

Michael Haneke

Oppressed by her mother, a pianist vents her frustrations in a vortex of depravation and masochism from which she draws artistic inspiration

Romance

1999

Catherine Breillat

A woman tries to explore her sexuality and discovers purity in degradation. Intellectual and feminine

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

1975

Pier Paolo Pasolini

De Sade’s philosophy transposed in a fictional nazi-fascist setting. A questionable production yet one that bears a timeless message

Secretary

2002

Steven Shainberg

The boss is a sadist, the secretary a masochist. By accepting their tendencies, they will overcome their serious issues until reaching an unusual happy ending

Servant, The

1963

Joseph Losey

Psychological domination and degradation become the mechanism behind a process of subtle revenge in a class struggle between a rich bourgeois and a “humble” butler

Story of O

1975

Just Jaeckin

Beautiful O falls in love with the sadistic and indecipherable Stephen, who brings her to a slave training castle. One of the first erotic blockbusters, based on a best-seller and strictly softcore

Tokyo Decadence

1991

Ryu Murakami

A lonely girl uses her masochism as a source of income while she waits for true love, discovering the depravation of Japanese society

Venus in Fur

2013

Roman Polański

The audtion for a Masoch-inspired piéce turns into a sensuous trial of patriarchy played over power dynamics

Woman in Chains

1968

Henry-Georges Clouzot

Disturbed by the picture of a bound woman, the protagonist discovers the subtle allure of submission in an intellectual relationship with a mature connoisseur

Writer of O

2004

Pola Rapaport

The hidden truth about the erotic bestseller Story of O, as told by the now nonagenarian author amidst the reconstruction of ‘50s France

 

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