While not a perfect movie by any means, Fifty Shades of Grey is receiving a ton of hatred, most of which I believe to be pre-packaged. It’s as if even attempting to view it with an open mind is some sort of mar against critical validity (when frankly, shouldn’t the opposite be true?). From casting shade on the dialogue, to the assertion that the movie ‘got BDSM wrong’ (despite BDSM being a blanket term for a large variety of recreational practices), audiences are acting like this is the first time kink has made it to the big screen, when in reality this couldn’t be any further from the truth. Kink has been a part of cinema for almost as long as cinema has been a thing. Let’s explore some of the finer instances.
Secretary (2002 – dir. Steven Shainburg)
Displaying the qualities of both a quirky small scale drama and subversive indie comedy, Secretary was one of the more successful efforts in mainstreaming fetish activities in film. Much like Fifty Shades, the story is about the path of a powerful, kinky businessman crossing with that of a more virginal, less affluent young woman. The big difference is that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ‘noob’ character is anything but pure. Having just survived a period of self-harm, she makes an attempt to falsely normalize her life, but when she meets James Spader’s mysterious Mr. Grey (yes, that is his name), she begins to blossom in ways she never thought possible. By treating BDSM as the result of, and cure to, a damaged history, Secretary doesn’t just use the lifestyle as a ticket seller. It has something to say. It’s also charming and funny. A rom-com with whips and chains? Imagine that.
Blue Velvet (1986 – dir. David Lynch)
Much like Secretary, Blue Velvet toys with a duality in the realm of sadomasochism. In certain sequences of the neo-noir mystery, kinky behavior is portrayed as steamy and sexy, while other sequences (often in a hair-trigger tonal switch) will use it to the effect of repulsion and vilification. Being a David Lynch film, the melodramatic approach to the dialogue works wonders to allow us to revel in the filth, all while admiring the beauty of such a non-traditional story. The chemistry between Kyle MachLachlan and Isabella Rossellini has yet to be matched, and the anti-chemistry that occurs once Dennis Hopper enters, in all his gas-huffing glory, is unforgettable. Blue Velvet is also host to perhaps the most memorable voyeur sequence ever committed to film.
The Night Porter (1974 – dir. Liliana Cavani)
Roger Ebert notably gave this film one star, and despite its merits, of which there are many, his distaste can certainly be defended. The subject matter alone – a fluidly dominant and submissive relationship between a former Nazi guard and a concentration camp survivor – is enough to make anyone queasy, but the character study portrayed within is as dense and interesting as it gets. Does a life of servitude and oppression manifest a desire for the opposite or for more of the same? Conversely, does a life of extreme power and advantage cause one to crave even more power, or less (or none)? Cavani’s film explores all of these things, and more. Centered around a legendary performance from Charlotte Rampling, The Night Porter, while not necessarily for everyone, demands to be studied. This type of brutally honest characterization (and a refusal to play ‘heroes & villains’) is all too rare in American cinema, and at a time when people are collectively losing their minds over the relatively tame Fifty Shades, The Night Porter is potent and essential viewing.
The Piano Teacher (2001 – dir. Michael Haneke)
A theme that runs rampant through the kinky cinematic world is repression. In an era where we are more sexually open than ever, we still manage to judge folks and their desires through a prudish lens. One wonders how social pressures can affect someone with alternative desires, and The Piano Teacher suggests that the results can be quite twisted, and not in a delicious way. You’d be hard pressed to find a performance better than Isabelle Huppert’s. She is equal parts villain and victim, and despite the pulpy nature of the material, the film, in typical Haneke fashion, oozes with class. Yes, even a noted scholar may be a bit (or a lot) kinkier than their persona may let on…
The Duke of Burgundy (2015 – dir. Peter Strickland)
The most recent entry on this list is also one of the finest. The story of a very specific romance between two women, The Duke of Burgundy portrays the dominant/submissive relationship in a way that not only excises the stereotypical whips and chains, but also explores how deep the obsession with a power exchange can go. Existing outside of any specific time-frame, Burgundy makes the practices engaged by our leading ladies feel almost quaint, while also causing the viewer to question who really is in control. This is easily the most subversive film on this list in terms of bucking cliches, and it’s already one of the finest films of the year. Read our review here.
What are your favorite fetishist films? Speak up in the comments!