Maîtresse (1975)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop: How to be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps (1992)

Before phrases like “sex positivity” & “kink” wormed their way into my vocabulary as a horned-up youth, Annie Sprinkle already embodied them in my mind as a sex-culture mascot.  Like other retro fetish icons like Bettie Page & Dita Von Teese, Annie Sprinkle has seemingly always been around in the public eye as a cheerleader for fun, adventurous sex – reaching me before I was old enough to access pornography without parental surveillance.  I don’t know if I first encountered her in a magazine interview or on a late-night broadcast of HBO’s Real Sex, but she’s definitely one of the first cultural ambassadors for kink & sex positivity that penetrated my sheltered suburban bubble.  Long before I had seen a single frame of her golden age pornos, she symbolized the ways that pornography could be fun & feminist in the right circumstances, which helped shape the ways I think of the medium.

While the mainstream porno Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle is likely her biggest commercial success, I don’t think Sprinkle peaked as artist until a decade later, when she was making avant-garde video art instead of traditional hardcore.  The cult VHS oddity Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop: How to be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps is a tongue-in-ass-cheek instructional video promoting kink & sex positivity, a wonderful document of the Annie Sprinkle ethos.  Co-directed with a young Maria Beatty (who still makes artsy fetish videos like Ecstasy in Berlin, 1926) and scored by experimental electronic musician Pauline Oliveros, the video is ostensibly a taped version of Sprinkle’s sex-positivity workshops that she ran in early-90s NYC but is something much stranger & more cinematic than that documentation implies.  In the video version of the workshop, Sprinkle lectures directly to the camera about the mystical slut/goddess binary. She promises to “awaken your inner slut” and “your inner goddess,” challenging cultural biases that a sexually enthused woman is somehow vulgar or immoral.  She walks you through this spiritual slut awakening in front of surreal green screen video-art effects while arhythmic keyboard flourishes, marching drums, and slide whistles trigger a kind of D.I.Y. psychedelic hypnotism.  Sprinkle declares that she wants the video to make sex “empowering, liberating, and healthy,” but in the process she also makes sex a bizarre psychotronic head-fuck.

While commercially marketed as a porno, the Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop plays more like experimental video art than it does like pure erotica.  It’s telling that Sprinkle & Beatty tacked on a lengthy threesome scene at the end of the video as an afterthought, realizing late in production that their sex video didn’t have much actual sex in it.  And even that scene concludes with Sprinkle experiencing a five-minute, unedited orgasm, lecturing about the different levels of orgasmic pleasure in voiceover while a digital clock counts every eternal second.  Everything that precedes that mind-blowing climax lands somewhere between the high-art mysticism of Derek Jarman’s The Garden and the psychedelic sketch comedy of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!.  A kaleidoscope of vulvas undulates on the screen while Sprinkle instructs on how to find “your goddess spot” and makes cheeky puns about how genital piercings make you “holier.”  Brief sex acts shared between her crew of “Transformation Facilitators” are transposed in front of backdrops that are usually reserved for karaoke screens.  The video is often hot and always fun, but it’s less pornography than it is Dianetics for your clit.

As you’d likely expect, not all of Annie Sprinkle’s sex-positive politics have aged gracefully over the past three decades.  The Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop has some major blind spots when it comes to cultural appropriation in particular, encouraging superficial Orientalist engagement with yoga & bindis as cultural costuming instead of genuine spiritual practices.  In the audio commentary on my mid-2000s DVD copy of the film, Sprinkle shrugs off the insensitivity of these missteps, explaining that she didn’t even know what cultural appropriation was at the time of filming.  However, she also recounts that those aspects of the workshop caused some of the video’s more radical performers to walk off-set in protest on the first day of filming, so those conversations were very much being had at the time whether or not she chose to listen.  Still, I’d like to think that it’s worth squinting past Sprinkle’s political blind spots to appreciate her ambassadorship for good sex and good pornography.  After all, she does have an entire section on her Wikipedia page titled “Contributions to Feminism,” which should be some implication of how important her messaging was at the time, short sights aside. 

If there’s anything especially radical about the Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop, it’s not necessarily in its erotic mysticism or in its video-art psychedelia.  Annie Sprinkle’s most invigorating contribution to pornography is in her D.I.Y. punk ethos, encouraging her audience to have more playful sex and even to make their own pornography at home.  It’s the same mobilizing energy that the Riot Grrrl movement brought to feminist bands & zines at the time, inciting women to make their own self-liberating art in defiance of the era’s cultural gatekeepers.  Sprinkle’s version just happened to allow her to experience a continuous 5-minute orgasm in the process, which is a pretty sweet bonus if you can achieve it.

-Brandon Ledet

Pvt Chat (2021)

I got so wrapped up in reflecting on how Adam Sandler’s career & persona reshaped the Safdie Brothers’ usual schtick in Uncut Gems that I forgot to mention the true standout discovery among its many NYC-caricature performers: Julia Fox.  As Sandler’s breathy, pouty mistress/employee, Fox softened Uncut Gems‘s acidity with a much-needed sweetness you won’t find elsewhere in the film.  At the very least, she’s the only character who finds the continuous fuck-up anti-hero adorable instead of despicable, and it’s oddly cute watching her play moll to his delusions of mafioso grandeur.  Fox felt refreshingly authentic & eccentric in the same way a lot of the Safdies’ NYC caricatures do, except with an unusual star power that had me leaning in for more, unsure that more would ever arrive.

2021 has been a pretty decent year for Julia Fox’s post-Uncut Gems career.  Not only did she land a small role in Stephen Soderbergh’s star-studded neo-noir No Sudden Move, but she also found an opportunity to co-lead a feature film that plays directly into her strengths as a screen presence (and, thus, one that’s unavoidably reminiscent of the Safdies’ grimy NYC filmmaking style).  Pvt Chat is a grim internet-age romance starring Fox as a camgirl dominatrix with the world’s wormiest fuckboy client (Peter Vack).  She spends most of her screentime domming the porn & gambling addict from the safety of a webcam, taunting him, “spanking” him, and using his tongue as a virtual ashtray.  Even when she’s playing mean in these exchanges, there’s a sweetness to her persona that leaks out of her patent leather armor.  It’s a dangerous allure for her character, whose approachability inspires her online client to become her on-the-street stalker.  It’s a huge benefit to her as an actress, though, proving that her radiant performance in Uncut Gems was not a one-time anomaly.  Julia Fox is the real deal.

Pvt Chat is not so much a Safdies photocopy as it is pulling inspiration from the same independent NYC filmmaking subcultures that inspire them.  It drags the late-night grime & mania of New York City livin’ up the fire-escape and onto the laptop computer, icing down the city’s up-all-night genre traditions with the cold isolation of life online.  It’s classic No Wave filmmaking echoed in 1’s & 0’s; it’s Smithereens for the Pornhub commentariat.  Pvt Chat declares itself to be “a romance about freedom, fantasy, death, friendship.”  In truth, it’s more about how all modern relationships have been completely drained of their intimacy through our transactional, performative online interactions.  It presents a world where intimacy is an illusion for purchase, not an authentic shared experience.  Setting that crisis in a city overflowing with genuine, in-the-flesh people only makes it more tragic (and more perverse).

There are some instances in which Pvt Chat‘s nostalgia for independent NYC filmmaking of yesteryear gets in its own way.  In particular, the way Julia Fox gradually falls for her sadboy crypto-bro client feels like the kind of pure masturbatory fantasy that would’ve been much more common on the 1980s & 90s film festival circuit than it is now.  Imagine a boneheaded version of Taxi Driver where Cybil Shepphard & Robert DeNiro genuinely hit it off after their porno theatre date on 42nd Street.  Personally, that romantic development didn’t ruin the film for me.  It arrives after so many preposterous, manic decisions made by late-night lunatics that it felt oddly at home with the movie’s M.O.  More importantly, even when the doomed lovers do physically connect, the movie does not abandon its themes of isolation & performance.  It perverts the consummation of their shared desire in a way that still leaves them physically alone & unfulfilled.  Maybe the movie is all in service of a delusional fuckboy fantasy, but it at least seems aware of how pathetic & grim that fantasy is.

Even if the unlikely central romance of Pvt Chat is a turn-off for most audiences, the movie is still a worthy vehicle for Julia Fox.  She commands the screen (and the screen within the screen) with an infectious ease that still has me leaning in for more.  It’s incredibly cool that her acting career wasn’t limited to a one-off novelty; she’s a goddamn star.

-Brandon Ledet

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