Cowards Bend the Knee (2003)

In retrospect, I was being redundant when I described last year’s The Twentieth Century as feeling like “watching Guy Maddin direct an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch that stumbles out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.”  That assessment still rings true, but I could’ve lightened my wordcount by just saying it felt like “watching a Guy Maddin movie”.  I’m used to seeing playful flashes of violence & vulgarity in Guy Maddin’s work, but something about Matthew Rankin’s kink-soaked debut doubled down on both in a way that really spoke to my juvenile sensibilities.  It turns out my oversight was in comparing The Twentieth Century to the statelier, well-respected Maddin of recent years, the one who’ll interject a Sparks music video about a man’s addiction to “derrieres” in the middle of his narratives but will stop short of fixing his camera on an ejaculating cactus for a minutes-long visual gag.  Guy Maddin was once a young button-pusher himself, though, something that should have been obvious to me even before I made the time to watch his own early-career kink comedy Cowards Bend the Knee.  It turns out I was just a few years too late in my Guy Maddin appreciation to catch him in his prime as a juvenile provocateur.

In Cowards Bend the Knee (or The Blue Hands), Guy Maddin reimagines (and improves!) the silent horror classic The Hands of Orlac as a kinky sex comedy about hairdressers, prostitution, abortion, hockey, and revenge.  Instead of a morally simplistic body horror about a concert pianist who becomes murderous when his hands are surgically replaced with a serial killer’s, Maddin abstracts his version in a Russian nesting doll story structure that’s long been familiar to his features.  We start with scientists examining a sperm specimen under a microscope, revealing in close-up that the sperm cells are hockey players competing on ice.  The star player is Guy Maddin as “Guy Maddin,” the team captain and son of the distinguished announcer who calls the games.  He’s pulled aside from his championship victory celebrations by a distraught girlfriend who’s just discovered she’s pregnant, which leads the couple to a hair salon & brothel that triples as an illegal backroom abortion clinic.  Maddin leaves his girlfriend mid-abortion for the madame’s beautiful daughter, who will not let him touch her body until her father’s death is avenged.  Her plan for retribution, of course, involves her father’s severed hands being surgically attached to her new lover’s body to guide his way.  Also, his old girlfriend is now a ghost who works at the salon.

Like all of Guy Maddin’s movies, Cowards Bend the Knee is deliberately aged & battered to look like an authentic curio from the earliest years of silent cinema.  Images often stutter & repeat in harsh jags as if the projector is struggling to feed the deteriorating film from reel to reel.  That antiqued image quality offers a great contrast to the shameless sexual fetishism of the film’s winding Greek tragedy plot.  Despite its title’s mention of legs, this is a film that’s fixated on the perversity of hands in particular.  From the more obvious kink acts like incest, fisting, and female-dominant wrestling to the unexpected eroticism of a haircut, the film presents the shape & use of hands as if they were the filthiest appendages on our bodies.  And maybe they are.  Maddin even accentuated the film’s sexual transgressions by premiering it as an art instillation where viewers watched each six-minute chapter as individual vignettes through key holes, as if peering into a bedroom (or a sex dungeon).  It’s all very silly and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also surprisingly thoughtful & genuine in its presentation of sexual fetishism and the way its magnetic pull can lead you to making desperate, self-destructive decisions.

The Saddest Music in the World taught me that Guy Maddin is a goofball prankster despite his work’s formalist exterior.  Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary taught me that he’s a bit of a luddite with a loving eye for the tones & textures of German Expressionist horror.  The Forbidden Room taught me that he works best in short-form vignettes that pulls the audience deeper into exponentially smaller worlds.  All of those aspects of his work were already firmly set in stone as early as Cowards Bend the Knee, but that one still taught me something about him that made me fall even further in love with his art: he’s also a filthy pervert.

-Brandon Ledet

The Maids (1975)

When thinking back on the most striking, most ferociously committed performances I saw in any new-to-me films last year, two of the clear standouts were Suzannah York in Robert Altman’s Images and Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers – underseen, underappreciated gems from otherwise beloved 1970s auteurs. Playing women driven to madness by the unsympathetic, patronizing men in their lives, both York & Jackson are wildly over-the-top in their respective roles, but in a way that fits the volatile melodrama of the material they were given. In a word, their lengthy on-screen freak-outs in those films are spectacular. I was pleased, then, to discover that York & Jackson shared the screen in a 1975 adaptation of Jean Genet’s notorious stage play The Maids – a campy, dialed-to-11 actors’ showcase that allowed the two powerful women to fully run wild without any other actors getting in their way.

Jackson & York costar as incestuous sisters/housemaids who take turns roleplaying as their wealthy employer in elaborate kink games meant to mock her & dominate each other. The Maids‘s stagey limitations prevent it from being anything too exceptional as A Movie, but the central performances & class resentment politics are deliciously over-the-top in just the right way. It would be tempting to call York & Jackson’s performances over-acted, but really they’re just matching the archly over-written source material, wherein Genet turns the pageantry of wealth & class into a grotesque joke. It’s an unignorably cheap display, limited almost entirely to a single bedroom set and the world’s most embarrassing synthetic wigs. York & Jackson are fully committed to the material, though, overpowering the limitations of the production with Theatrical performances so monstrously grandiose & vicious they would make even Ken Russell blush.

On a thematic level, I can think of a few recent films that repeat & perfect The Maids‘s bigger ideas to much more exquisite results. In particular, the way the film fetishizes the employer/servant power dynamic and sarcastically pinches its nose at the stench of poverty, it’s impossible not to recall similar class-kink humor in films like Parasite & The Duke of Burgundy. It’s easy to get wrapped up in those comparisons to superior works, and the overall effect of York & Jackson reading off Genet’s deliberately overwrought dialogue ultimately feels like attending a 90min poetry recital. Still, it’s very much worth seeking out just to witness those two women sparring for dominance in a vicious, tawdry battle. I wish I could say it’s a great Movie overall, but it’s more a showcase for two great performances from women so overwhelmingly powerful it’s amazing that any one movie could contain them both.

-Brandon Ledet

The Twentieth Century (2020)

When enticing friends to check out The Twentieth Century, it’s probably best not to lead with plot.  This is a historical retelling of the 1899 campaign for the Prime Minister of Canada.  It focuses mostly on the rise to power of William Lyon Mackenzie King in particular, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history.  Sounds riveting, doesn’t it?  Luckily, the film is an exercise in pure visual aesthetics & surrealist flippancy, so that the story it tells does not matter at all when compared to the over-the-top indulgences of each in-the-moment gag.  The Twentieth Century is light on historical accuracy and heavy on tongue-in-cheek, kink-flavored eroticism.  It’s a gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another,” which is not at all the dry textbook illustration the premise might suggest.  In fact, it is very, very wet.

The competition for Canadian Prime Minister is represented as more of a dystopian game show here than it is an election.  As distinctly Canadian challenges like passive-aggressively responding to strangers cutting in line or clubbing baby seals to death Whack-a-Mole style add up, it’s clear this film is more of a sketch comedy showcase than it is a Wikipedia bullet point history lesson.  However, unlike most modern comedies, it’s also an over-achieving visual spectacle from start to end, constructing an intensely artificial German Expressionist dreamscape out of hand-built sets, puppets, and traditionalist collage.  In its entirety, The Twentieth Century feels like watching Guy Maddin direct an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch that stumbles out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.  That reductive descriptor can’t fully convey how surprising the film is in its moment-to-moment impulses, though.  It’s formally controlled in its visual aesthetics, but total irreverent chaos in every other sense.

The Twentieth Century is less fascinated with Mackenzie King’s politics as a power-hungry Prime Minister than it is with the more salacious details of his private life, represented here as an occultist quest to cure himself of a fetish for dominatrices and old leather boots.  That self-hatred over his most base impulses is extended to represent the spirit of Canada as a nation: an embarrassed, self-loathing country that strives to convey dignity & poise, but is rotting from the inside in a way it can barely contain.  I’m not a Canadian myself, so I can’t claim that withering self-portrait spoke to me on a personal level.  However, the more universal humor of a self-hating kinkster who can barely conceal their fetishism while attempting to maintain a professional public persona translates extremely well cross-border, as does the film’s more over-the-top, absurdist indulgences: bird puppets, ejaculating cacti, tongue-in-cheek drag routines, etc.  It’s also a constant pleasure to look at, which is an increasingly rare quality in a modern comedy.  I couldn’t help but love it.

-Brandon Ledet

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Dottie Gets Spanked (1993)

PBS programming was apparently a lot more adventurous in the 80s & 90s than I remember it being as a kid, even though I watched it religiously as a pretentious nerd without cable access. Or maybe it’s that local PBS affiliates in Louisiana weren’t broadcasting The Good Stuff (the gay stuff) that aired in less morally regressive areas of the country. Whatever the case, a few weeks ago I learned that PBS broadcast the radically queer video art flamethrower Tongues Untied the year of its initial release (admittedly to some national controversy in the press), and now I’m just finding out that the publicly funded network also broadcast a 30-minute Todd Haynes short about a child’s sexual awakening as a burgeoning kinkster. Made between Poison & Safe, Dottie Gets Spanked was a dispatch from the earliest, most abrasive period of Haynes’s career, when his voice was such an anomaly on the indie film scene that critics had to coin a new term for it: New Queer Cinema. And PBS was there to push that outsider-art queerness in front of a larger audience, risking morally righteous pushback from the Conservative pundits who are always on the hunt for excuses to defund the network. I think that’s beautiful, and it’s very different from the super-safe (although still incredibly helpful & informative) version of PBS I remember from my own childhood.

In Dottie Gets Spanked, a small suburban child in the 1960s becomes fetishistically obsessed with a spanking scene in an I Love Lucy type sitcom, much to the horror of his super straight parents. True to the messy multimedia style of Haynes’s early work, this simple story is told in a deliriously fractured, layered narrative that’s spread across three tiers of reality: the real world, the sitcom world, and the dream world. In the real world, the young boy is terrified of his emotionally distant father, a cold brute who mostly looms in doorways & watches football while his wife takes care of the actual parenting. The child escapes this tension by sitting inches away from the television and disappearing into the sitcom world, a black & white spoof of I Love Lucy era comedies (a fan-favorite of girls his age, which makes him out to be an outsider at school). In turn, this sitcom world informs the boy’s fantasies: surrealist De Chirico dreamscapes that become intensely erotic once a spanking episode of The Dottie Show introduces a burgeoning fetish into his nightly repertoire. It’s an uncomfortable but deeply relatable portrait of a young child discovering their first sexual impulses in a household where anything that’s not married heteros in the missionary position is considered an abomination & a personal moral failure. Because Haynes is behind the wheel, it’s implied that the young child is gay but unaware of that predilection, but the story is universal enough to hit home for anyone who’s ever discovered their queer identity or unexpected kink obsession while growing up in a conservative household.

Personally, I identified with this on a cellular level. It reminded me of recording sitcom episodes & other random television ephemera that overlapped with my own emerging kinks onto homemade VHS tapes in the 90s. It’s a shame those tapes were lost to flood waters in Hurricane Katrina; I imagine they might play with the same feverishly horny delirium that’s established in this film’s spanking dreams (or maybe the found footage video diary of a serial killer, if I’m being more honest with myself). A lot of those clips were likely pulled from PBS, appropriately enough, even though I don’t remember my local station’s programming being as boldly daring as the psychosexual overtones of Dottie Gets Spanked. But the whole point of this movie is that the content we fixate on while we’re mapping out our own erotic imaginations does not have to be direct or overt to be effective. Even when locked away from the broader spectrum of sexual play & identity in a morally buttoned-up household, we still find a way to indulge ourselves in what turns us on. That searching-for-scraps-of-kink scavenging may now be a relic of a pre-Internet world, considering how much access most children have to information outside their parents’ control, but it is perfectly captured in this playfully naughty Todd Haynes short from the 90s. Knowing that the movie’s production & distribution was at least partially publicly funded only makes its existence more perversely amusing.

-Brandon Ledet

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (2020)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Story of O (1975)

For the first half of the 2010s we lived on a street that was absolutely perfect for yard sales. Our version of Spring Cleaning was always kicked off by a seasonal yard sale to get as much accumulated junk out of the house as possible (a tradition that has since been supplanted by the hassle of hauling our excess bullshit to thrift stores & second-hand shops), and they were always a success. They were such a success, in fact, that friends & family would dump their junk on us to help distribute it into the ether (for a very minor payout). This ritual frequently involved my sister handing off giant Rubbermaid bins overflowing with DVDs she was eager to get rid of as streaming movies online became more of her standard entertainment routine over that half-decade. The shameless movie nerd that I am, I’d always pick through those bins myself before offering them up to the vulturous public and pull out a few titles here or there to store up in my own house, where they’d also go unwatched. My sister’s cinematic castoffs were usually recognizable mainstream movies (often good ones), but there were always one or two deeply strange outliers in there if I was committed enough to search for them. I don’t remember many specific examples, but I do remember this: No film was ever as strange to find in my sister’s discarded DVDs than the X-rated softcore drama The Story of O. It was, of course, one of the DVDs I kept for my own collection before dragging the rest of the bin to our old porch steps. I don’t want to dwell for too long on why my sister purchased this vintage S&M smut or why she chose to get rid of it, which is partly why it took me over a half-decade to finally watch the film myself – allowing it to collect dust along with the rest of my dreaded Shame Pile in the meantime. I do know why I’ll finally be selling this disc off after just one single viewing, though, which is all I can dare to report on this blog.

The Story of O arrived in an era where pornography had delusions of going mainstream, initially under the guise of being distributed as European “art films.” This particular example of French erotica wasn’t nearly as seedy as its NYC contemporaries from the 42nd street epicenter of smut, but it was still considered filthy enough to earn an “X” rating in America and an across-the-board ban in Britain all the way until the year 2000 (a familiar treatment for the appropriately-named director Just Jaeckin, who had just experienced the same censorship for his debut feature Emmanuelle). The Story of O‘s eponymous source novel had experienced prudish censorship in its own time as well, penned under a pseudonym by journalist Anne Desclos in the 1950s only to face obscenity charges (in France of all places). It’s a modern continuation of the Marquis de Sade brand of S&M, where secret societies of immense wealth torture (in this case, consenting) women in cult-like rituals for communal sexual gratification. This movie adaptation wastes no time diving headfirst into that shamelessly contrived premise. The titular O (whose full name is never disclosed) is introduced en route to her masochistic training facility, on a car ride where her lover (a baby-faced Udo Kier) instructs her on what to wear and how to act as she suffers the ritualistic torture to come. We don’t learn until many whippings later that O is a fashion photographer with an inner life & artistic sense of control all of her own, since her submission to this secret sex cult is entirely predicated on her transformation into a pleasure object (and, later, a recruitment tool to draw in future pleasure objects from her industry). It’s an absurdly artificial scenario that immediately becomes grotesquely immoral if you prod at it in terms of real-world gender & sex politics, but it’s also a familiar one to anyone who’s ever spent a minimum of ten minutes reading erotica.

I was immediately struck by the soft-focus psychedelia of this film’s imagery, with its archaic occult S&M costuming and its obsessive reflections of mirrors against mirrors to achieve a kaleidoscope effect. It has all the gorgeous visual trappings of the artsy-fartsy Euro horrors of its era, just with the straight razor giallo murders being supplanted by sadistic sex acts. And, honestly, my only chance of ever truly loving the movie was if it had applied its soft-psychedelic imagery to the horror genre instead, since its repetitive tableaus of women “willingly” being whipped while saying “No” wasn’t really My Thing (in every implied meaning of that phrase). Its total lack of pre-play negotiation, agreed-upon safe words, and tender aftercare didn’t jive at all with how I engage with S&M in my own (admittedly modern) understanding of these sexual power dynamics. At risk exposing too much of my own internal erotic imagination here, I’ll admit that I did perk up once O started exhibiting control as a top in the dungeonous playpens where the movie gets its kicks (and in her fashion photography shoots, where she commands her models in a position of excited authority), but that’s more of a last-minute afterthought than a genuine engagement with any particular theme. The most interesting narrative thread in the film is about how the cathartic power play staged in the secret society’s closed-off rooms affects O’s public persona in “real” society (and how she gradually learns the pleasures of being the objectifier, not just the object). The only problem is that The Story of O is much less interested in themes & narrative than it is in the imagery of women being sadistically bound & whipped by men, which is either going to be Your Thing or it isn’t. No amount of visual aesthetic nor historical interest can save a niche porno you just don’t find pruriently enticing, just like how no stylistic flares can save a comedy you don’t find funny.

Speaking as an outsider to this particular corner of kink, it’s probably best to avoid passing any kind of moral judgement on the erotic imagination illustrated here. There are troubling ways in which this material is reflected in real-life misogynist violence, but that’s probably a large part of what makes the taboo so enticing in the first place. Also, not for nothing, the film is ultimately about female pleasure & self-discovery, whether or not it takes a rocky, roundabout way of getting there. All I can say is that it wasn’t really My Thing, which is something I already knew as soon as I picked it out of the Yard Sale pile. In retrospect, I probably would have gotten more pleasure out of seeing which of the curbside weirdos picked it out of the Yard Sale bin instead of hoarding it for myself.

-Brandon Ledet

The Virgin of Lust (2002)

As you’ve likely noticed, there aren’t a whole lot of new releases out there right now. As a response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, almost all cinemas have entirely shut down in order to adhere to proper “social distancing” practices, prompting movie studios to either unceremoniously dump this season’s new releases to VOD streaming platforms or to delay them for the indefinite future. This disruption of movie distribution has afforded me a lot of time to tackle what I call my “Shame Pile”: a bin of assorted DVDs & Blu-rays I haven’t watched since I purchased them. A few of my physical media purchases have rotted in that Shame Pile limbo for years, but none are quite as ancient nor as shameful as the 2002 Mexican melodrama The Virgin of Lust. The cloudy, bumpy texture of its plastic casing is the biggest indicator of that shame: it was a Blockbuster Video purchase. At one time, Blockbuster’s 4-for-$20 liquidation sales of used DVDs comprised the majority of my new movie intake, especially in the days when I was too broke & too busy to make it out to the theater more than a couple times a year (between working full-time in restaurants and attempting to graduate college). It’s been a full decade since there was a Blockbuster Video operating in New Orleans, though, so it’s genuinely shameful that it took me this long to work my way through the last of my purchases from that chain’s cheap-o cast-offs. In that way, watching The Virgin of Lust was more than just some lazy, prurient afternoon viewing to help pass the time during this period of coronavirus-incited isolation. It was also an end of an era.

Immediately after hitting play, it became apparent why I waited so long to give this film a chance. It’s just so shamelessly cheap. I mean that in regards to its actual price, its production values, its approach to sexuality, and its flavor of political commentary. This film is unequivocally, unashamedly Cheap. There’s nothing especially cinematic about its execution, to the point where it reads more like a televised stage play than a legitimate Movie – complete with that soap opera frame rate effect that makes all BBC shows look like trash, even the expensive ones. The bizarre thing is I suspect that Flagrantly Cheap quality was somewhat intentional. At the very least, it’s openly acknowledged by the text. The opening & closing minutes of The Virgin of Lust summarize the life & times of its protagonist in a series of quick-cut tableaus & block-letter intertitles that spell out their intent like a children’s book: “Life flows like a river,” “Every day’s the same,” etc. It feels more like a TV ad for a movie than the actual thing, but the film eventually acknowledges that effect with a closing title card that reads “Coming soon.” So, overall The Virgin of Lust plays like a three-minute movie trailer that’s interrupted by a 2-hour stage play as its mid-ad intermission. I’m not going to say the effect of this structure is transcendent or sublime in any way, but it’s at least memorably bizarre – which is also how the film feels at large.

Questions of funding & structure aside, The Virgin of Lust is a sordid melodrama about a 1940s café waiter in Veracruz who falls into unrequited love with an opium-addicted sex worker amidst revolutionary plots to assassinate Franco. Spanish ex-pats & revolutionaries pontificate at length about the best tactics to dismantle fascist institutions, but our central character does not have much of a political mind to speak of himself. He’s singularly obsessed with a beautiful, suicidal opium addict who literally stumbles into his life, only so she can spurn his every declaration of devotion out of disgust. Despite explaining flat-out,”I’m evil and a whore. You’re an idiot and poor,” the troubled woman cannot shake the worm’s adoration, so she chooses to milk him for all he’s worth as his reluctant dominatrix. The only actual sex in this vulgar telenovela are scenes in which the cruel mistress commands that the wormy waiter lick her feet—often in public—as a sign of subservience. Otherwise, we only see our lowly working-class protagonist masturbate over his carefully curated collection of pornographic photographs. At the start of the film his mantra for this masturbation ritual is “Titty, titty, pussy, pussy,” which he whispers to himself in hushed, reverent tones. By the end, his masturbation mantra shifts to “Franco must be killed, Franco must be killed,” more out of a misguided attempt to please his friends & mistress than out of any personal political beliefs. The rest of the film merely details the daily tedium of running a small café, punctuated by surrealist dips into vulgar S&M sexuality and performances of opera & lucha libre artistry for sordid flavor.

While the artists behind this film weren’t exactly nobodies, they were also nowhere near the top of their game at the time of production. Director Arturo Ripstein got his start working under surrealist master Luis Buñuel as an uncredited Assistant Director in the 1960s. The opium-addict mistress that ties the story together was played by Ariadna Gil years before she got her big break as the mother figure (and the Queen of the Underworld) in Pan’s Labyrinth. Both perform admirably here, but neither can escape the severe limitations of the production. A large part of The Virgin of Lust‘s stage-bound quality is the limitations of its budget, which do not allow for many setting changes or any exterior shots (given the expense of producing an accurate period piece outside the confines of a sound stage). The set decoration recalls contemporary Jean-Pierre Jeunet productions in its dulled, antique luster, but that patina isn’t enough to overpower the cramped feeling of the action rarely leaving the café. Ripstein seemingly embraced that effect instead of running away from it – approaching his story through the mediums he could afford on his budget: vintage photograph tableaus, stage play dialogue exchanges, movie trailer highlight reels, etc. As a result, The Virgin of Lust can’t help but feel small & inessential, so it puts all its effort into at least being memorable. Its jolts of vulgar S&M sexuality, lucha libre iconography, and anti-fascist politics ensure that it won’t be forgotten as soon as other disposable works on its budgetary level.

It wouldn’t really be fair to ask anything more than memorability out of a used DVD that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for a solid decade. I don’t know that I could enthusiastically recommend watching the film to anyone who didn’t already have it lurking in their shame pile, though. The Virgin of Lust is a trip, but it’s not a trip worth going out of your way for.

-Brandon Ledet

Daddy Issues (2019)

How far can costuming & production design alone carry a movie for you? I don’t know that I’ve ever had those two metrics tested to a further extreme for me personally than they were in the recent low-budget indie drama Daddy Issues, which is majorly flawed as a complete picture, but continually fascinating to look at. This is a kind of pastels-tinted Instagram Era erotic thriller for the Gen-Z set. It hits my exact sweet spot in its melted ice-cream makeup & costume design and in its horned-up fixation on Social Media, but its subprofessional dialogue & performances are cringey enough that I can’t readily recommend it to anyone else. At least, I can’t without knowing how much of a well-applied pink pastel eye shadow or an infantilized baby-blue sex dungeon means to you – since the film doesn’t offer much else to chew on.

This is a delayed coming-of-age melodrama for a young 20-something who still lives with her parents in her pastels & glitter-coated childhood bedroom in Los Angeles, unable to move on with her life because she cannot afford her dream art college program in Italy. She’s somewhat broken out of this rut in a Gen-Z wish-fulfillment fantasy sequence where her #1 Instagram crush takes her under their wing as a lover & an artistic collaborator. The two women—Insta-famous fashion designer & Deviant Art-level webcomic cartoonist—settle into a fairy tale routine of wholesome queer bliss as young artists in love, but the fantasy is short-lived. It turns out the Insta crush our cartoonishly naïve protagonist is “cybersessed” with has an undisclosed side hustle as a sex worker for an older man with an age-regression Sugar Baby kink. The twisty details of this revelation blow up their romantic tryst in a spectacular meltdown of hurt feelings & psychosexual discomforts, almost all revolving around their titular daddy issues as young women with far-less-than-perfect familial backgrounds.

The main hurdle in appreciating Daddy Issues on its own terms is that it’s much more in tune with the mildly eroticized melodrama of a Lifetime Original Movie than it is with the tense atmospheric horniness of a proper erotic thriller. This same combination of high-femme art design and dangerously horned-up cyber-romances has been achieved much more convincingly in recent titles like Cam, Nerve, and Braid. Here, the shocking love-triangle revelations and awkward vocalizations of Very Online queer-theory speak feels like an alternate dimension (or perhaps a glimpse of the future) where Lifetime Movies are designed for young people who’re always staring at their phones, as opposed to the Boomers & Gen-X’rs who love to complain about how young people are always staring at their phones. It’s over-lit & devoid of any atmospheric tension, like a Disney Channel: After Dark feature that was allowed to include strap-on sex & mid-coitus choking in its thin, immature melodrama. And yet, I was personally compelled throughout on the strengths of its costuming & set design alone, despite obviously being way too old for this shit.

Daddy Issues is a debut feature for director Amara Cash, who clearly as an eye for visual aesthetics even if she’s a little shaky on tone & dramatic tension. Maybe a heftier work with more to chew on in its premise & messaging than this outrageous Dear Abby letter plot might lead her to make better work in the future. Then again, maybe, from a Gen-Z sensibility standpoint, she’s already doing perfectly fine as is. Our own Millennial-flavored version of this erotic melodrama schlock fueled hundreds of episodes of MTV’s Undressed in the early 00s, after all, and I watched every single one I could sneak past my parents on late-night cable. Why shouldn’t the next set of horned-up indoor kids get their own generational update to The Red Shoe Diaries to keep that time-honored tradition alive? If nothing else, their superior D.I.Y. fashion sense has earned them the indulgence.

-Brandon Ledet

Piercing (2019)

Piercing is A Strange Movie, both in pretension and in practice. It’s a tightly wound, carefully mannered character study that titillates with deadly violence & sexual kink for a purpose neither its creators nor its audience can ever quite fully figure out. If the overall goal of the film is to humorously parody the roleplay of adult kink scenarios through the societal manners of buttoned-up dramas from the past, it’s an effect that’s been archived much more convincingly in recent titles like Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy. If it’s simply trying to titillate & amuse voyeuristic onlookers with no further purpose, though, it’s living up to its full potential admirably. Sex & violence are entertaining enough on their own merits, whether or not they serve a greater purpose, and Piercing has plenty of fun with the shameless voyeurism & throwback genre payoffs its buttoned-up kink play parody affords it. It may be a little weird-for-weird’s sake, but it still at least passes for pleasant, playful entertainment – though not quite fun for the whole family.

Halfway between a giallo throwback and a snazzy Euro heist like The Italian Job or Ocean’s Twelve in an aesthetic sense, Piercing is largely a two-hander detailing the deranged sexual & violent impulses of two star-crossed combatants. Christopher Abbott stars as an uptight, sexually frustrated husband who plans to channel his violent resentment towards his wife & baby into murdering an anonymous sex worker with an ice pick. Mia Wasikowska costars as his potential victim – an S&M equipped prostitute who threatens to self-destruct before he has the chance to kill her himself. The film is constrained to stage play-scale settings & act structures as their mysterious, clashing plans play out to disastrous ends. Like all seasoned kinksters, the uptight murderous husband gets most of his thrills from planning & anticipating the act, only to find that reality doesn’t exactly match up with his fantasy. The prostitute proves to be a wild variable that chaotically derails his thoroughly detailed plans in the heat of the moment – perhaps to his own peril. As with Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy, the exact power dynamics of those two sly combatants become the central mystery of the story being told, as they conceal as much of their true selves as they can beneath a falsely calm, civil surface.

Your own appreciation of Piercing may depend on your appetite for these cheeky 70s genre throwbacks in general. If your patience was tested by High-Rise, Free Fire, or Hotel Artemis, for instance, there’s even less fun to be found here despite the allure of the sex & violence in the premise. Its genre nostalgia is blatant, expressed through VHS tape warping in its opening credits, Goblin needle-drops on its soundtrack, and its high-rise apartment exteriors being digitally constructed as impossible miniatures. Still, puzzling your way through the hidden motivations & strengths of its two leads can be wickedly fun. Is the wife giving her husband permission to murder this unsuspending sex worker or is that his auditory hallucination? Is he into auto-erotic asphyxiation or just practicing his choking skills? Is he going to stab his own baby with an ice pick or just having a lark? Watching the film yourself won’t provide any clearer answers to these questions that you could derive from reading this review. Questioning the intent, motivation, and meaning in this violent kink scenario is the entirety of the entrainment value offered here – whether or not it’s been achieved before in better, more meaningful works.

-Brandon Ledet