Welcome to Episode #166 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of movie remakes, starting with the 1981 erotic thriller version of the classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice.
01:31 Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022) 07:17 Menace II Society (1993) 12:45 Mad God (2022) 18:25 Gigli (2003)
25:25 The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) 47:05 Scarface (1983) 1:05:00 Father of the Bride (2022) 1:28:00 The Blob (1988)
Why is it that every movie about a dominatrix follows the same trite storyline where the hardened, leather-clad woman in charge softens the moment she finds a romantic partner who can lower her defenses? From corny, vintage domme media like Body of Evidence & Exit to Eden to more modern, thoughtfully considered dramas like Dogs Don’t Wear Pants & Pvt Chat, every feature-length depiction of a dominatrix’s love life I’ve seen is framed through a macho “I can fix her” POV. That tradition apparently dates at least as far back as 1975’s Maîtresse, in which a young, bumbling thief (Gérard Depardieu) falls in love with an experienced dominatrix (Bulle Ogier) despite being baffled by her profession, then schemes to break her “free” from the lifestyle. It’s up there with Basic Instinct as one of the more nuanced, subversive movies about sexually dominant women that I can name, but it still plays directly into the dominatrix romance’s most tired cliché.
What’s funny about Maîtresse‘s narrative phoniness is that director Barbet Schroeder is obviously proud of its Authenticity in every other metric. His in-your-face, documentarian approach to Authenticity can be a little tiresome, like in moments when a horse is slaughtered & drained for butcher meat on-camera, or when the titular mistress nails one of her client’s dicks to a wooden board in full surgical detail (a stunt thankfully performed by a real-life professional, not Ogier). It’s an incredible asset to the film’s mise-en-scène, though, especially in the dominatrix’s play dungeon. Schroeder hired a professional domme to ensure the legitimacy of the kink scenes’ props & practices. The camera’s awed pans over the mistress’s tools of the trade or her clients being dressed in lingerie and ridden like horses (some, apparently, clients of the sex worker hired to oversee the shoot, getting off on the humiliation of being filmed) are electric in their documentation of vintage BDSM play. I somehow doubt that real-life dominatrix was also consulted for the story beats of the central romance, though, which is a shame.
To be fair, Maîtresse does directly challenge the macho POV of its in-over-his-head protagonist. Depardieu plays a real mouthbreather, a thug who’s visibly intimidated by the whips & leather gear he finds in the play dungeon he burgles before wooing the dominatrix who owns it. For her part, Ogier’s mistress character clearly explains to her new thief boyfriend that she is no damsel in distress, saying “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.” He attempts to “rescue” her from her comfortable, voluntary sex work routine anyway, and every drastic knucklehead action he takes on her behalf only makes her life worse. Although the story is framed through the thief’s POV, he is introduced to the audience picking his nose on his motorcycle, undercutting whatever brutish cool he could possibly convey with the same dipshit goofiness that makes the thieves in Mandibles so laughably ineffectual. Maîtresse may participate in the same “I can fix her” trope as every other dominatrix romance I’ve ever seen (Hell, for all I know it may have been responsible for creating it), but at least the central relationship in this specific example is dramatically complex.
This is essentially the story of two mismatched tops struggling to dominate each other, both barreling towards ruin because they won’t do the obvious thing and break up. I’m always a sucker for stories where characters are compelled to repeatedly do things that are obviously going to kill them just because it makes them super horny; this version is even somehow refreshingly sentimental in its romance . . . when it wants to be. Karl Lagerfeld’s fetish-fashion designs for the dominatrix’s wardrobe also afford it some wonderfully vivid imagery. Genital torture & horse deaths aside, Maîtresse is commendable. It’s only when I stop thinking about it as an individual work and consider it instead in the larger continuum of how dominatrices’ inner lives are portrayed (or ignored) on-screen that I’m disappointed it didn’t transgress in even more pointed, narrative ways.
If you have any inclination to check out the new direct-to-Hulu erotic thriller Deep Water, it’s because you’re a fan of at least one of its main three collaborators: Adrian Lyne, Ben Affleck, or Ana de Armas. No offense meant to down-the-call-sheet performers like Tracy Letts & Lil Rel Howery—nor to Euphoria-famous screenwriter Sam Levinson—but Lyne, Affleck, and de Armas are the film’s only legitimate draws. Deep Water‘s allure is entirely dependent on extratextual details from those three Hollywood celebs’ careers and tabloid notoriety. Not only is it the first Adrian Lyne film in 20 years, it’s also a return to the genre that made him infamous in the first place: erotic thrillers like 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal. It’s also a film that’s only hype-building press coverage was of Ben Affleck & Ana de Armas’s post-production love affair, as detailed in months-long paparazzi photo shoots. Otherwise, Deep Water does not truly exist in any practical or meaningful way, having been unceremoniously dumped into a Disney streaming platform sub-dungeon after a couple years of COVID-related distribution delays. You need to care about at least one of its three central collaborators to know or care about Deep Water to begin with, and you need all three of them to be in top form for the movie to fully satisfy. Unfortunately, it only edges you 2/3rds of the way there.
Ben Affleck & Ana de Armas are blameless in the movie’s failure to perform. De Armas is electric as a frustrating housewife-gone-wild, whose extramarital affairs appear to be equally for their own drunken-hedonist sake and a kinky role-play game she shares with her cuckolded husband, Affleck. As amusingly erratic & irritating as her performance can be, Deep Water is Ben Affleck’s movie through & through. He’s in his Gone Girlmode here, scruffy & gloomy to the point of self-parody. He pretends to be troubled by his wife’s sexual flings with younger men, only putting up with it to avoid divorce while they’re raising a young daughter. De Armas knows exactly how much fun he’s having as the silently “suffering” husband at home, though, quipping “If you were married to anyone else, you’d be so fucking bored you’d kill yourself.” What’s unclear is whether he’s staving off boredom by killing her lovers, and whether his wife is aware that murder is part of their kink. Like clockwork, each of her boytoys either go missing or are found dead as a new affair heats up, then she immediately replaces them with the next victim-du-jour. In the meantime, Affleck dutifully attends to their daughter and to his own coterie of pet snails, occasionally bragging about murdering his wife’s lovers with a self-amused smirk, daring the audience to believe him. It’s a deeply strange performance, an even more convincing supervillain origin story than Joker. All it’s missing is a scene where Affleck gets dragged away to Arkham Asylum, exclaiming “I was poly under duress until I became The Snail, avenger of cuckolds, the Willard of adultery!”
It’s a shame, then, that the director fails to reciprocate his actors’ efforts. Adrian Lyne is limp & passionless in his framing, as if he knew from the beginning this was a straight-to-streaming affair. The novelty of the uptown New Orleans setting offers little in the way of personality, unless you were somehow unaware until now that the wealthy are depraved perverts with no sense of taste. There are some nods to tropes of the erotic thriller’s heyday, mostly in de Armas’s unhinged villainy as an over-sexed woman and in Affleck’s more covert villainy as a ruthless businessman (this time as a tech-bro contributor to drone warfare, an update to Michael Douglas’s finance-bro jobs in decades past). The sex scenes are brief and missing the gender-warfare combativeness that made the genre’s original run so thrilling to begin with. The most antagonistic the sex gets is when de Armas demands that Affleck kiss her ass, and Lyne follows his immediately buried face in uncomfortable close-up. You can feel the movie come alive in moments like that, like when she spitefully removes a single pube from her tongue after initiating a blowjob she had no intent to finish. The problem is those moments feel like foreplay for a literal war-of-the-sexes that never fully heats up. And then, cruelly, the movie abruptly ends without a proper payoff – again, no intent to finish. It feels as if Lyne wasn’t sure what he was making or why, leaving it to the editors to figure it out in post. Too bad Paul Verhoeven didn’t get the job instead, since he already improved Lyne’s Fatal Attraction through revision & parody in Basic Instinct: the very best specimen of the genre, and proof in itself that Lyne is kind of a hack.
Deep Water is fun in spurts, but it’s missing a few escalated sex scenes and a proper climax. There’s only one dead-weight participant in its central threesome, but it’s enough to spoil everyone else’s good time. Affleck at least seemed like he had fun playing with those snails, but the whole movie needed to be as off-putting & slimy as his hobby.
I’m currently catching up with this year’s Oscar nominees in my down time, a shameful ritual that I mostly use as a motivational deadline for movies I planned to seek out anyway. The Oscars can’t bully me into watching keeping-up-with-the-discourse titles like Belfast or Don’t Look Up!, since I have no personal interest in their existence beyond how they might play into this year’s ceremony. The nominations are useful for pressuring me to seek out prestige flicks leftover from the Best of 2021 listmaking season, though, and I’ve recently enjoyed catching up with titles like Parallel Mothers, Nightmare Alley, Summer of Soul, and The Worst Person in the World since they were announced. So far, there has only been one major disappointment in this year’s catch-up ritual: the Princess Diana biopic Spencer. I hate to say it, because I’m generally a fan, but Kristen Stewart’s performance as Diana Spencer is the only reason it did not work for me, and it happens to be the only category the film was nominated for (Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role). Spencer‘s retro couture, ghostly imagery, and suffocating tension are all consistently effective, but Stewart’s the anchor of every dramatic beat and it all just rings as embarrassingly phony. It feels like a Kate McKinnon parody instead of the genuine thing. That didn’t bother me so much when Natalie Portman channeled Jinkx Monsoon in its spiritual predecessor Jackie, but Spencer feels like it’s running away from the laidback cool of Stewart at her best, and the gamble just didn’t pay off.
What’s most frustrating about Spencer‘s dramatic disappointments is that director Pablo Larraín did deliver a stellar, accolades-worthy picture in 2021 that’s mostly going unnoticed while the inferior one’s out there chasing awards statues. Ema would not have qualified for this year’s Academy Awards even if it were the kind of picture that institution tends to recognize (it’s far from it), since COVID derailed its distribution in a messy, years-long path from its festival run in 2019 to widely accessible screens. I would at least have liked to see it celebrated on more critics’ Best of the Year lists, though, which tend to have a less pedantic approach to citing a film’s official release (i.e., accounting for wide distribution rather than limited screenings in elitist hubs like Cannes, Venice, New York, and LA). Even I failed to highlight Ema as Best of 2021 material on my own modest platform, waiting to access a DVD copy as a library loan instead of spending $5 to see it VOD before weighing in on Swampflix’s Top 10 list for the year. That DVD was eventually put on hold for me this February, and if I were re-drafting my personal Best of 2021 list again today Ema would have ranked among my top three favorites of the year (along with Titane & I Blame Society, all great films about violently transgressive women). I can at least take solace in knowing that it ranked on Hanna’s personal Best of 2021 list for this site and, more importantly, that none of this listmaking or awards-season bullshit ultimately matters anyway. It’s all an overly complicated movie promotion machine, a process I can sidestep at any time simply by saying this: Ema is a great movie, and I highly recommend you seek it out.
Part erotic thriller, part domestic melodrama, and part interpretive dance, Ema feels like Almodóvar doing Climax, which I mean as the highest of compliments to Larraín. A young couple become pariahs in their Chilean town by returning their son to his adoption agency after ten months of parenting, as if they were returning a faulty home appliance. The son’s absence haunts their household like the ghostly presences of Jackie & Diana in Larraín’s political psych-thrillers. Only, Polo is alive & retrievable in a nearby home – adopted out to a new, more affectionate family. Gastón (Gael García Bernal) is content to deal with the fallout of Polo’s exit by endlessly debating who was the worse parent with his wife/employee, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo). Ema takes a more pro-active approach to restoring order to the family, scamming her way into Polo’s new household Parasite-style and—no exaggeration—burning down half of their town with a flamethrower until she gets what she wants. She leaves her subservient life as an anonymous member of her choreographer-husband’s avant-garde dance troupe to form a vicious girl gang who are willing to fuck, scratch, dance, and burn the world to the ground in Ema’s name. Meanwhile, she only grows more powerful the further she drifts away from her husband’s petty criticisms of her moral character (ranging from her ineptitude as a mother to her ill-reputable taste in reggaeton dance music). The film can only end with every character in Ema’s orbit observing her infamy in stunned silence, impressed but horrified by how much chaos she’s willing to unleash in order to get her kid back – a kid she once casually tossed away.
As the title and synopsis suggest, the film is in awe of Ema as a character more so than it is interested in the logistics of its drama. She recalls the subversive anti-heroines of erotic thrillers past – like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, with a severe bisexual haircut to match. It’s like being intensely horny is her superpower, a force so overwhelming it bends everyone to her fucked-up will. Wielding a napalm-dripping flamethrower is only her second most dangerous weapon, considering how much more societal terrorism she achieves through sex (along with her harem of fellow dancers). Ema the character is alone a spectacle to behold, and it feels like every other aspect of the film exists only in service of admiring her from different angles. The domestic melodrama she shares with Gastón only exists to highlight her viciousness, as the doomed couple use memories of their collective failure as parents to inflict maximum pain on each other in constant emotional cheap shots. The reggaeton & interpretive dance sequences add a lyrical exuberance to her city-wide mayhem, making it clear that she’s having fun ruining the lives of everyone around her in the relentless pursuit of her selfish goals. Even poor Polo is only a mirror reflection of Ema’s fantastic wickedness, as his maternally inherited hedonism & pyromania are exactly what drove him back to the adoption agency in the first place. And the flame thrower? That just makes Ema look like a badass, like Rambo wielding a rocket launcher.
All the things I admired about Jackie & Spencer are readily present in Ema: the unbearable tension, the over-the-top costuming & theatrics, the fascination with the inner lives of Complicated Women, all of it. The difference is that the historical drama is an inherently more restrained genre than the erotic thriller, no matter how much Larraín tries to mussy up his performance-piece biopics with arthouse mystique. Ema is totally free to be its fabulous, fucked-up self with no respect owed to historical figures or the conventions of good taste. It’s a shame that its distribution was so muddled by the chaos of COVID, since it at least could have earned as big of a cult following as Titane in the right circumstances (which landed on Hulu within months of winning the Palme d’Or). I can only hope that Ema gradually cultivates that kind of following over time, and I encourage anyone who enjoyed Titane to give this sinister spectacle a shot as well; it’s the closest any film has come to besting it for my favorite release of 2021.
Verhoeven is back, baby. I was less than amused by the Dutch prankster’s outrageous rape comedy Elle—despite its broad critical consensus as a sharply observed satire—so it feels nice to rejoin the cheerleading squad for its nunsploitation follow-up. Benedetta is part erotic thriller, part body-possession horror, part courtroom & political drama, and pure Paul Verhoeven. It’s great! It’s a shame that the master provocateur has been relegated to scrappy indie budgets in his late career, though. It’d be a lot more fun to watch a mainstream audience squirm under his thumb instead of the self-selecting freaks who are already on-board with his blasphemy against good sense & good taste. Even at 83 years old, Verhoeven is still raising neck hairs & eyebrows; he just used to be able to rile up an even wider audience with flashier budgets & celebrity stunt casting. I mourn for a world where Benedetta would’ve been a controversial water cooler movie instead of an obscure reference that makes your coworkers think you’re a pretentious snob. Even the small Catholic protests that have followed around the movie’s premieres in cities like Chicago & NYC like The Grateful Dead are living in a fantasy world where it will have any cultural impact beyond plumping up a few sicko film critics’ Best of the Year lists. I enjoyed joining them in that fantasy for a couple hours during its brief theatrical run in New Orleans, but I do question the usefulness of a provocation that no one shows up to be offended by.
Like with all nunsploitation movies, whatever hoopla & headlines Benedetta will be able to generate will likely focus on its onscreen depictions of lesbian sex. Verhoeven shamelessly indulges in that salacious aspect of his historical source material, but it’s not the main thrust of the film’s blasphemy. The kinkiest his young nuns in love get is in fashioning a dildo out of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, which seems more like a circumstance of convenience than anything; sometimes you just have to make do with what’s lying around. The real button-pusher here is the political rise-to-power story of the titular Italian blasphemer: a 17th Century nun who claimed to experience miraculous visions of Jesus Christ, resulting in a powergrab takeover of her small-village convent. Benedetta’s political rivals are other local higher-ups in the Catholic Church who are both fearful of the power she wields among the villagers (claiming to protect them from encroachment of the Bubonic Plague) and willing to humor her blasphemy as long as it brings money & attention from the religious tourism industry. The blasphemy is in how openly the movie takes Benedetta’s side in the battle, even while questioning whether her miraculous visions are genuine. The second she arrives at the convent as a young child, she’s taught that bodily pleasure is an affront to God, that she should live in constant agony on Earth to honor Him. Watching her claim to have an even more intimate relationship with God than her superiors, and that He said she should be allowed as many orgasms & daily comforts as she desires is delightfully transgressive, even if she’s flat-out lying about it. Speaking as a lapsed Catholic with long-lingering issues with guilt & self-hatred thanks to the Church’s fucked up views on pleasure & morality, Benedetta is essentially a superhero to me. I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess who the supervillain is.
As much fun as I had with Benedetta as political theatre, I still missed the slicker Hollywood budgets Verhoeven used to be afforded in his heyday. The closest the film gets to recalling his 80s & 90s crowdteasers is in its illustrations of Benedetta’s religious visions, in which she fantasizes in-the-flesh erotic encounters as Jesus’s bride. I was fully prepared for the film’s sexual theatrics & religious torments, but I was blindsided by its visions of Jesus as a sword-wielding warrior from a romance novel, riding into the frame on horseback to sweep his young nun-bride off her feet. Unfortunately, the film backs off from illustrating those visions in its second half in a ludicrous effort to “play both sides,” questioning whether Benedetta was a shameless blasphemer or a true believer. It’s fun to root for her even when you believe her to be a liar, but I still would’ve loved to see more fantasies of Jesus as a hunky heavy-metal badass with Fabio hair & glistening abs. No one has depicted “religious ecstasy” so erotically since Ken Russell was still kicking around, so it’s hard not to feel a little let down when Verhoeven eases off that indulgence. It’s also just a welcome return to the high-style genre filmmaking of his Greatest Hits, while the rest of the film is shot more like a muted costume drama despite the sensationalist story it tells.
There are parts of Benedetta that outraged me, from Catholicism’s reverence for Earthly anguish to the film’s own preoccupations with sexual assault & torture. It’s also a movie that opens with several shit & fart jokes, just so you know it’s okay to have a good time despite its many discomforts. Verhoeven’s been incredibly adept at that exact clash between cruelty & camp for longer than I’ve been alive, so it’s honestly just nice to see that he’s still got it. I just find it shameful that we’re not throwing more money at him to offend & titillate on a larger scale.
I’ve been seeing a lot of praise online for the supposed return to form for erotic thrillers that’s been happening on major streaming services. While the biggest movie franchises in the world—The Fast and the Furious, the MCU, Star Wars, etc.—have completely removed sex & eroticism from the movie theater, at-home streamers like Netflix have scored minor word-of-mouth hits for hornt-up trash like 365 Days and Deadly Illusions. I think praising this ripple-sized “wave” of straight-to-streaming erotic thrillers as some kind of return to the genre’s 1980s-90s heyday overlooks a plenty of much better, riskier examples of the recent past like Double Lover, Knife+Heart, and Stranger By the Lake. What’s being championed instead of those modern genre gems is the straight-to-VHS softcore version of that revival, which is fine. At the very least, Netflix’s recent, self-reported success in producing mainstream home-video erotica is inspiring their competitors to make more of the stuff to attract that bored & thirsty market while it’s viable. And now Amazon Prime has taken a swing at the erotic thriller throwback with its in-house release The Voyeurs. I’d argue that their movie studio wing has already done a great job of bringing erotic menace back to the multiplex in much more creative, daring titles like The Neon Demon, Suspiria and, most recently, Annette. Still, I had a lot of fun with their goofy, salacious entry into the home-video end of the genre, with all of its lustful coveting of what Netflix was doing in private.
The Voyeurs is basically Hitchcock’s Rear Window reimagined (maybe un-imagined?) for the straight-to-video erotic thriller genre, making it the second delightfully inane Rear Window homage of the year, following The Woman in the Window. It’s much more ludicrous & consistently fun than Joe Wright’s film, however, pushing its idiotic internal logic towards a spectacularly trashy third-act climax that would be a water-cooler discussion topic for months if it were a proper theatrical release instead of a disposable streamer. We start with a young couple (Euphoria‘s Sydney Sweeney & Detective Pikachu‘s Justice Smith) moving into their first apartment together in Montreal. The French-Canadian substitute for Parisian lust & romance is pronounced early & often, with Montreal being introduced through its lingerie boutiques and described as “Fuck City”. Mostly, though, it’s as cold and isolating as any major city in the North, which leads its doe-eyed Millennial protagonists to huddle up in their gorgeous apartment. Instead of retreating into the modern incuriosity with the physical world around them that plagues most Kids These Days, they find themselves fascinated with the constantly nude gym-body couple across the street whose living room & bedroom windows are clearly visible from their own loft. This initial curiosity quickly snowballs into full-blown erotic obsession, with many crossed lines, a surprising number of dead bodies, and an even more surprising number of onscreen orgasms.
It’s the third act twists that really elevate The Voyeurs above the routine tedium of straight-to-streaming thrillers that get released on a weekly basis. Its flat cinematography and the robotic mannerisms of its cast reinforce the terrifying reality that the house style of The CW has become one of the major cinematic influences of our time, but there is one major benefit to it suffering the many ills of modern streaming #content: its sprawling 2-hour runtime. The rising-action portion of this steamy thriller hits all the exact beats that you’d expect, from the young couple’s decision to buy baby-pervs’ first set of binoculars to their inevitable escalation of making physical contact with the neighbors they’ve been spying on as foreplay. Once all those lustful indulgences are out of the way, it’s time to teach them (and the lustful audience indulging through their POV) a hard-earned lesson through the most ludicrous mechanism possible. And then the film goes an extra beat to allow our horny-for-the-first-time anti-heroes a chance to take revenge. It’s a rare instance where the unrushed, over-plotted runtime that’s become standard for most modern mainstream films is actually used to its full advantage: giving the audience exactly what we want out of the genre, then pushing it into shameless, delirious excess no one really wanted or needed out of this simple tale of erotic voyeurism. It delivers on the sexual menace promised by its premise, then stumbles around making incredibly goofy decisions in the post-coital afterglow, something we’ve all been through before.
There are a few distinguishing details that make The Voyeurs memorably stylish in its own dopey way: its soundtrack’s dream pop cover of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face,” its attempts to kink-up the intimacy of routine eye exams, its protagonist’s unlikely transformation into a rooftop superhero, etc. For the most part, though, it’s most enjoyable as a standout example of a larger industry trend: the shameful slinking-off of the mainstream erotic thriller from public movie theaters to private maturbatoriums. I doubt any of these word-of-mouth streamers will ever hit me the same way as seeing my beloved, filthy Double Lover with a packed, in-the-flesh film festival crowd, but I guess I have to appreciate these deliriously horny novelties wherever I can find them. I’m always pushing for movies to be simultaneously sexier & sillier, and The Voyeurs admirably tears itself in both directions.
If you look at academic writing on the artistic & cultural value of vintage pornography, most discussion tends to focus on the genre’s usefulness as unintentional documentary footage. The renegade, unlicensed location shooting and footage of real people acting semi-naturally in their actual day-to-day wardrobes end up serving as time capsules of place & time as classic porn ages, when those effects were often just a byproduct of the films’ severely limited budgets. If you asked golden-era pornographers themselves at the time of production what the artistic or cultural value of their work might be, you’d likely hear a much different answer: defiance of censorship. Many of the pioneers of the “mainstream” porno business had to fight long, vicious courtroom battles to earn the right to make a buck, or even to publish their product at all. Major names like Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Al Goldstein come across as grotesque sleazebags at first glance, and maybe a lot of that reputation was earned. They also did a lot of great work in dismantling the unconstitutional “obscenity” laws that made the production of pornography (and any other artistic materials deemed immoral by highly subjective, Conservative standards) illegal, often explicitly out of a “You can’t tell me what to do” indignance. Many arrests & appeals later, these anti-censorship efforts did eventually chip away at the boundaries of what media was permitted to be published & distributed, paving the way for more mainstream industry shifts like the obliteration of the Hays Code’s lingering restrictions.
If you’re interested in vintage pornography’s history as anti-censorship activism but don’t want to watch something as anarchically lurid as the enema bonanza Water Power, In the Realm of the Senses offers an interesting, accommodating case study. That’s because it’s not exactly pornography in the strictest sense, even though it features lengthy scenes of unstimulated sex between its two main actors. Director Nagisa Ōshima at least partially intended In the Realm of the Senses to be a refutation of the “pink film”, the industry standard of Japanese softcore that’s heavy on eroticism & sexual play, but also incredibly demure in terms of depicting actual penetration or genitalia. Ōshima knew his film would not be permitted in its intended form due to Japanese censorship laws, so he exported it for processing in France and had it shipped to international film festivals as a French co-production. It’s been banned & censored in many countries over the decades since its release but none as harshly as in its native Japan, where it’s still to this day never been officially screened without the blurred modesty pixilation that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Japanese porno. And yet, even though the film explicitly depicts sexual acts from its first scene until its last, calling In the Realm of the Senses a porno at all feels highly reductive. It’s more an intense romantic drama & erotic thriller that just happens to feature unstimulated sex, one that puts just as much effort into its slick production values as it does into its eroticism. If it’s a porno, it’s the only porno I know that’s earned a coveted spot in The Criterion Collection – which I usually wouldn’t point to as a benchmark of legitimacy, but does feel like an indication of artistic & cultural value in this specific case.
Set in 1930s Japan, In the Realm of the Senses is a historical drama retelling the infamous tabloid spectacle of Sada Abe. Abe is the exact kind of public figure John Waters would have written loving fan letters to if she had survived just a couple decades longer: an unlikely celebrity who earned their revered status through manslaughter & debaucherous sex. Sada Abe started her professional life as a prostitute, then found fresh-start employment as a hotel maid. She quickly became sexually & romantically involved with the hotel’s owner—a married man—and the two allowed their initial spark of lust to explode their lives as they essentially just fucked every waking moment away until one of them died. The partner who died happened to be the married man, and Abe was still so mesmerized by her connection to his penis that she severed it and took it with her in her travels, leaving the rest of his corpse behind. This proto-Lorena Bobbitt tale afforded Sada Abe a kind of vulgar celebrity, which she used to support herself in her remaining years as a macabre entertainer. The movie abruptly ends at the moment of genital mutilation, however, so we never get to see that fame-through-killing epilogue. Instead, it covers the time from the lovers’ initial sexual encounter until the violently kinky one that ended their tryst (through overly excited experiment in breath play, which is always a major risk). It’s basically a story about the intensely intoxicating lust period that accompanies the beginning of all new sexual relationships, pushing that mutual-obsession eroticism to its deadliest, least dignified extreme.
I personally most appreciated In the Realm of the Senses as a gorgeous, fully committed precursor to the 90s era erotic thriller, one that’s much more daringly direct about its ugly psychosexual impulses. Any tales of mutual erotic obsession you’d see from mainstream American sleaze-peddlers like Adrian Lynne or Joe Esterhaz are likely to be much more moralistic & sexually timid than this arthouse Japanese predecessor. Ōshima’s film fully captures the unstoppable, life-consuming fervor of intense erotic fixation, and it’s wonderfully tragic to watch two people fully give into their mutual obsession as the world watches them fuck each other into oblivion. It’s clear that Ōshima intended to challenge the boundaries on as many sexual taboos as possible here, though, so that the film also works as an anti-censorship provocation. Lengthy depictions of public sex, cunnilingus, menstruate, piss play, breath play, crossdressing, and selfish female pleasure all feel like they’re designed to push Japanese censors’ buttons even beyond the initial shock of the unstimulated PIV intercourse. What’s incredible, though, is that the film never feels like Pornography in the traditional sense, in that the actors aren’t performing sexual pleasure for maximum visual spectacle. Their encounters are intimate, contained, sensual – even when they involve genital mutilation or the vaginal insertion of food. It’s an oddly tender film about mutual self-obsession that just happens to include hardcore sex scenes. The question, then, is where does the boundary between fine art & pornography truly lie, and what use is artistic censorship if that line can be so easily blurred? In the Realm of the Senses was brave to ask that question so bluntly, but it’s also just a gorgeously sinister love story beyond that provocation.
The recent Finnish drama Dogs Don’t Wear Pants shamefully stumbles into some major Kink Movie clichés that I would love to see abolished entirely. This is a movie about an icy dominatrix who—surprise—allows her heart to melt for the first client who shows her romantic tenderness. That client is a father who—shocker—cannot fulfill his familial responsibilities because of his all-encompassing obsession with kinky sex. Other well-worn clichés about pre-scene negotiation and non-simulated violence also apply. And yet, I still very much adore this film, if not only because it follows what might be my all-time favorite plot template: Our protagonist is obsessed with something they know is going to eventually kill them but they keep returning to it anyway because it makes them super horny.
A widower processes the grief of not being able to save his wife from drowning by hiring a dominatrix to help him explore an emerging kink for breath play. As a respected brain surgeon, he logically knows just how dangerously irresponsible it is to have your air supply cut off by choking, even if through consenting to erotic asphyxiation. However, once he accidentally stumbles into a dominatrix’s play dungeon and experiences his first euphoric blackout by choking on her whip, he can’t help himself. The man spirals out from low-key depressed widower to depraved stalker who won’t let women be until they literally choke the life out of him so he can re-experience his near-death euphoria. The problem is that the dominatrix (besides not wanting to participate in his death wish) grows an unexpected soft spot for the doomed soul and can’t safely give him what he wants in a controlled environment. Breath play is already a dangerous enough risk under the best circumstances; his obsession with the most extreme end of that risk is absolutely terrifying to anyone unfortunate enough to be pulled into his self-destructive orbit.
As kink-misinformed as Dogs Don’t Wear Pants can be in terms of its fictional clichés, it at least takes genuine erotic delight in its femdom dungeon sessions. Giallo-esque red gel lights reflect off the dominatrix’s patent leather catsuits with an eye-searing intensity as she issues commands to her latest, most troubled client as if he were a lowly dog (thus the title). The actual kink sessions are long, lingering, and genuinely erotic. While the breath play itself is essentially assisted suicide, the way the widower masturbates to his wife’s left-behind perfume & wardrobe within and outside the sessions registers as genuine fetishism. The movie even has a positive outlook on kink as a therapeutic tool once he experiences a personal breakthrough that shakes him out of his rut (even if he takes a long, dark road to get there). Personally, I would have loved to see that breakthrough occur in the second or third act so we could experience the peculiar romance that develops once the film pushes past its genre’s most often repeated clichés. But, hey, maybe I’ll get my wish and this indie Euro fetish drama will somehow land a sequel. It ends at its most interesting point, and I would love to see that trajectory pushed even further.
I assume that if you leave a movie wanting more, it must qualify as some sort of a success. I may be frustrated by the way Dogs Don’t Wear Pants repeats the worst sins of the kinky erotic thriller genre, but it’s more than peculiar & stylish enough to be forgiven for the transgression. Or maybe I’m just too much of a sucker for neon lights & form-fitting leather to get hung up on its faults.
Nicole Kidman stars in Gus Van Sant’s tabloids-obsessed erotic thriller To Die For as a local cable Weather Girl from the suburbs who cons metalhead teenage dirtbags into murdering her husband. It is maybe the most purely 90s Movie I’ve caught up with since the 90s ended, having blindly stumbled upon it as a recent thrift store purchase because I dug Kidman’s lewk on the poster. Her costars include Ultra 90s sitcom performers Wayne Knight (Seinfeld), Kurtwood Smith (That 70s Show), George Segal (Just Shoot Me!), and the never-less-than-stellar Illeana Douglas (who had at least one guest spot on any TV show you can name) among Van Sant’s usual movie-star caliber cast of players. Arriving just one year after Pulp Fiction, it experiments with the scrambled timeline messiness that became inescapably popular in a post-Tarantino world, applying it to the Joe Eszterhaz era erotic thriller, as defined by 90s titles like Showgirls & Basic Instinct. Danny Elfmann provided the score, which can’t help but recall the 90s suburbia fantasy worlds he helped establish for Tim Burton in titles like Edward Scissorhands & Beetlejuice (which spilled over into the decade in its animated Saturday Morning Cartoon form). The only way To Die For could be more quintessentially 90s is if it were Clueless and, even then, both films share their casting of Dan Hedaya as a disgruntled dad.
Beyond its immersion in contemporary aesthetics & personae, To Die For is distinctly 90s on a philosophical level in its bottomless appetite for tabloid sensationalism. Vanity Fair dubbed the 90s to be The Tabloid Decade in its 1999 retrospective on how news media had changed over those ten years (which makes sense given that it was the decade when the O.J. Simpson trial kicked off the 24-hour News Cycle, bringing tabloid journalism into every American’s living room on a round-the-clock routine). Energized by that growing cultural obsession with Celebrity Criminals, Nicole Kidman plays a tabloid superstar who recalls archetypes of the era like Lorena Bobbitt, Patsy Ramsey, and Tonya Harding (which makes it fitting that I, Tonya later copied from this movie wholesale and turned every last interesting thing about it into a tactless embarrassment). The novel Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from was even “loosely” based on a real-life tabloid sensation: Pamela Smart, a New Hampshire high school employee who really did seduce her school’s least respected teens into murdering her husband. Although Smart was not a Weather Girl in real life, contemporary audiences still would have recognized the iconography of her crime from the supermarket magazine racks and instantly known where this story is headed, so Henry & Van Sant waste no time taking them there. The movie begins with Kidman being mobbed by paparazzi at her husband’s funeral. Her fame is then projected on tabloid magazine-inspired opening credits so intensely up-close that they resemble a Roy Lichtenstein print in motion. A fictional headline that reads “Sex, Violence, and the Weather” could have served as an alternate title if Van Sant really wanted to commit to this sadistic tabloid obsessiveness (it’s what the Lifetime Channel version of the movie would have done, anyway), but we still get the point without him going there.
Since the Pamela Smart story was already familiar to the point where it was practically a modern folktale, To Die For is less about the surprise of her life’s twists than it is about the alluring idiosyncrasies of her character. Kidman’s persona in the film feels like a Mainstream Hollywood mutation of the fame-seeking anti-heroines of John Waters’s oeuvre: Pink Flamingos‘s Babs Johnson, Female Trouble‘s Dawn Davenport, Cecil B. Demented‘s Honey Whitlock, etc. She is desperate to be a famous TV personality at any cost. At first, her path to achieving that dream seems to be exhibiting her bombshell good looks on a local cable network’s news show as their eye-candy Weather Girl. Murdering her husband was only a necessary insurance measure, since he disapproved of her leveraging that gig into bigger opportunities that might have come along – preferring that she settle for becoming a stay-at-home mother instead. It turns out, though, that the murder itself was a much quicker path to televised fame. There’s a noticeable thrill that lights up her eyes once she realizes that the world’s attention is glued to her misdeeds on the screen (and on supermarket magazine racks). By 1995, neither celebrating nor satirizing the attention-seeking narcissism of tabloid-friendly criminals were especially novel; Waters alone was nine features deep on the topic with Serial Mom the year before. Still, the specific textures of Smart’s bizarre circumstances, Kidman’s sweetly cruel performance, and Van Sant’s playfully ironic (and, frankly, patronizing) tone make the film a sadistic delight.
The only hiccup I have with my enjoyment of To Die For is the way Gus Van Sant plays with the order of events. His mix of mockumentary and traditional narrative filmmaking styles is generally fun to watch, but there is a jerky stop-and-start rhythm to their assemblage that makes it difficult to fully lose yourself in the story being told. Otherwise, I’m totally on board with this film as an exercise in 90s-specific aesthetics, especially in its harsh contrast between Kidman’s bubbly femininity and the speed metal riffs that frequently interrupt Elmann’s whimsical score. The film only becomes more impressive the longer you dwell on how I, Tonya disastrously attempted to repeat every single trick in its playbook (which becomes apparent as soon as Illeana Douglas begins conducting her “interviews” from an ice-skating rink) but stumbled on a hypocritical tact of audience-blaming that blew up the entire balancing act. By contrast, Van Sant openly indulges in being captivated by the Pamela Smart story, shamelessly burrowing into its most sordid details and cruelly poking fun at the small-town simplicity of its central players. It might not be as Moral of an approach as the audience shaming finger-wagging of I, Tonya, but it’s at least an honest one. To Die For captures a very specific time in tabloid criminal celebrity by genuinely participating in its full allure, like a Lifetime Original Movie that happens to feature actual movie stars. If nothing else, it’s easily among the career best outings for both Kidman & Van Sant, who have plenty of formidable contenders for that honor.
One of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movie about men & masculinity. That’s not to say she doesn’t have an active, genuine interest in the topic as auteur, but rather that it’s curious that the filmmaker fixated on telling men’s stories happens to be the one woman director to ever win her field’s top prize. Bigelow’s preoccupation with macho, dirtbag men is especially noticeable in our current Movie of the Month—the Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—in which a scumbag anti-hero played by Ralph Fiennes is inexplicably centered in the film’s narrative instead of the more traditionally heroic badass played by Angela Bassett. Bassett’s stunt-driving, punches-throwing, testicles-kicking, politically radical heroine is a true wonder—a spectacle in herself—which makes it all the more tragic that even she is helpless to Fiennes’s greasy macho charms in the main role. That letdown is an intentionally frustrating aspect of the script (which Bigelow penned with her creative partner and already then-former husband James Cameron), but it still left me wondering what the film might have played like if Bigelow were more interested in Basset’s inner life and instead centered the woman as the lead. It would at least have been a novel departure from her usual mode.
As far as I can tell, Bigelow’s 1990 cop thriller Blue Steel is her only feature film to date with a woman in the top-billed role. Jamie Lee Curtis stars a rookie NYC police officer with a violent streak that immediately lands her in hot water. She’s not exactly the tough-as-nails badass Bassett portrays in Strange Days, but that archetype is exactly what she aspires to be. When pressed by her male colleagues about why she wants to be a cop in the first place, she “jokes” about coveting the violent authoritarianism of the position, musing “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to shoot people.” The truth turns out to be more that she grew up powerless to stop her abusive father from physically assaulting her mother, and her new badge & gun armory allows her to wield power over him and other abusers. The first time she dons her blue uniform, she struts down the street with newfound, first-in-her-lifetime confidence. During her first night on the job she overreacts to the threats of an armed suspect and unloads every bullet she’s got into his chest. She just as capable of violence as Bassett’s tough-as-nails heroine, but lacks that role model’s cool, even hand and moral sense of justice. It’s a dangerous inner conflict that the film eventually likens to the sociopathic impulses of a deranged serial killer – a man. Naturally, this wouldn’t be a Bigelow film if there wasn’t some destructive, alluring force of masculinity present to steer the central conflict.
Blue Steel’s grotesquely macho villain subverts Jamie Lee Curtis’s hero status at the film’s center by realigning her with the Final Girl archetypes that first made her famous. Ron Silver costars as a dangerously narcissistic Wall Street brute turned serial killer, essentially laying out the entire American Psycho template in an underpraised stunner of a role. This mustache-twirling villain is first inspired to kill when he witnesses Curtis decimate her perp on her first night of patrol. His fetishistic obsession with her (and her gun) quickly escalates into erotic thriller territory, a tension he relieves by shooting randomly selected victims on the NYC streets. He also shoehorns his way into the rookie cop’s romantic life with his Wall Street wealth, so that she’s unknowingly dating the very killer she’s professionally hunting. While the film is willing to link the trigger-happy cop’s penchant for violence with the Wall Street creep’s own sociopathy, this largely becomes a tale of a woman who’s boxed in on all sides by macho bullies. Between her abusive father, her gaslighting boyfriend, and the police force higher-ups who do not believe her accounts of being attacked by creeps on the street, Blue Steel’s heroine is awash in a flood of insidious machismo. For at least this one film, Bigelow proves that she can center a woman protagonist’s story why still satisfying her auteurist preoccupations with the nature & textures of masculinity. In that way, Blue Steel deserves to be regarded as one of the director’s foremost texts.
There are plenty of other reasons why Blue Steel deserves higher critical prominence in the Bigelow canon that have nothing to do with its tough-as-nails heroine. From the harsh noir lighting to the ice-cold atmospheric score & eroticized gun violence, this deeply creepy, mean thriller finds Bigelow at one of her most stylistically indulgent moments as a director. She’s channeling some serious 80s Friedkin vibes here, which I mean as a high compliment; all that’s missing is an elaborate chase scene & a Wang Chung soundtrack. Still, the most readily recognizable significance of the film within the director’s larger catalog is the rare chance to see her center a woman protagonist while remaining true to the violence & masculinity of her typical milieu. It’s not exactly the hypothetical “What if Angela Bassett was Top-Billed in Strange Days?” scenario that genre nerd audiences are likely to hope for, but it is the closest Bigelow has ever gotten to satisfying that ideal. It’s also, notably, an exquisite chiller of a film in its own right.