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

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

A couple years ago when Disney was making ungodly amounts of money off its “live-action” remake of its own animated Beauty and the Beast adaptation, there was an online push to remind everyone that the perfect live-action Beauty and the Beast already exists. Often cited as the inspiration for Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, legendary French filmmaker Jean Cocteau had already transformed the fairy tale’s 18th century source material into pure cinematic magic in the 1940s, a visual achievement that has been exceeded by few films of any era or genre, much less one that tells its exact story. It turns out I was smart to procrastinate on that online recommendation for the perfect Beauty and the Beast adaptation – not only so that I wouldn’t enter the film overhyped, but also so that my first experience with it would be on the big screen at the 2019 New Orleans French Film Festival. After being confronted with its magic & majesty in a proper theatrical environment, I cannot deny the visual splendor & fairy tale magic of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête; it’s every bit of a masterpiece as it has been hyped to be, just a gorgeous sensory immersion that defines the highest possible achievements of its medium. What I didn’t know to expect, however, what its reputation as the defining Beauty and the Beast adaptation had not prepared me for, was that it would be so deliriously horny. La Belle et la Bête is more than just a masterpiece; it’s a Kink Masterpiece, which is a much rarer breed.

Opening with a classic “Once upon a time” preamble and establishing a toxic dynamic in the prologue where the titular Belle suffers at the whims of her wicked sisters and her financially irresponsible father & brother, La Belle et la Bête is on the surface a picture book fairy tale with few deviations from its genre template. Where the film’s unorthodox horniness starts to creep in is in the oddly sensual magic of the Beast’s castle. Like in the Disney cartoon most of us would be familiar with, the castle is alive & sentient. However, instead of being anthropomorphized as singing, dancing appliances, the castle is alive in more weirdly sensual ways. Stone faces carved into the fireplace silently watch visitors while slowly smoking, as if enjoying a post-coital cigarette. Muscular arms of bare flesh hold candelabras in dutiful, disembodied servitude – jutting out erect from framed adornments on the castle walls. Bedroom doors & mattresses beckon for entry in pleading ASMR whispers, luring Belle into undressed comfort. The castle isn’t alive so much as it’s thirsty, desperate for the sensual touch of a visitor. At first the production design reads as a post-German Expressionist nightmare recalling early Universal Monsters & Val Lewton sets in its impossibly tall, drastically lit interiors. Then, as the horniness & power dynamics of the film’s central romance heats up, it registers more clearly as a sentient sex dungeon – as if the Beast’s longing for sensual human contact were so strong that it started infecting the inanimate objects that house him in a kind of everlasting thirst curse.

In this unexpected kink dynamic, the titular Belle is our unlikely domme. Too beautiful to be living her life as a servant, yet cursed to be mired in domestic labor because of her father’s business debts, Belle is unfairly powerless in an increasingly cruel world. That might explain why she finds taboo pleasure in exerting power over the Beast, who is ostensibly her captor but grovels at her feet. Belle is prisoner to the Beast’s whims in the same way that all kink subs tend to exert control by ordering their doms to issue commands. He laps water out of hands like an obedient dog. He watches her eat extravagant meals in a pre-Internet version of Mukbang. He showers her in jewels & beautiful clothes yet shies away from her eye contact & compliments. He kneels at her feet, awaiting commands, flipping the power dynamic of their captor-prisoner relationship. La Belle et la Bête is a femdom fairy tale, just as much of a kink romance story as Secretary or Crimes of Passion or Belle du Jour, although its costume design pedigree allows it to hide that dynamic in plain sight. The film is genuinely creepy & beautiful as a straightforward fantasy-horror romance; there’s just also a subtly played layer of sadomasochistic kink just under its surface that made me feel a little uncomfortable with watching it in the same theater as young, French-speaking children.

As the endless possibilities of CGI allow for anything to happen onscreen, the magic of moviemaking is slipping away from us. There’s nothing especially magical about remaking an animated film in CG-bolstered live-action in the 2010s, as the tools that allow for that achievement are common to the point of being pedestrian. The practical effects, hand-built sets, and disorienting fairy tale logic of La Belle et la Bête were going to be more memorable that the 2017 Beauty and the Beast “remake” no matter what, then, as its basic building blocks & cultural context are far more unique and, by necessity, inventive. What really makes the film stand out from most modern fairy tale adaptations, however, is how unbelievably horny it feels in a kink power dynamic context. Even your average dark fairy tale corrective like The Fall or Tale of Tales tend to emphasize the violence of their source inspiration much more predominately than the sex. There are many things that make La Belle et La Bete a special, one-of-a-kind work, but I’m not sure enough emphasis has yet been afforded to tis raging, kinky libido.

-Brandon Ledet

Double Lover (2018)

The French erotic thriller Double Lover first hit L.A. & NYC theatres around Valentine’s Day this year, coinciding with the nationwide release of Fifty Shades Freed. As a result, many early American reviews had cheeky things to say about how this kink-splattered fuck fest made the final installment in the Fifty Shades franchise look embarrassingly tame by comparison. It’s a correlation that doesn’t make too much sense outside their parallel American release dates. Double Lover is erotically charged, sure, but its pronounced horniness is a ferocious, irrational indulgence in dream logic that leads to something much stranger & further outside the bounds of linear storytelling to be compared to a series of films so . . . vanilla in their estimation of kink cinema. That’s not to say the film supports no comparison to pre-existing art. In fact, it’s practically a work of pastiche. Double Lover starts as a cover version of David Cronenberg’s cult classic Dead Ringers, then works in notes of De Palma’s Sisters, Rosemary’s Baby, the 1982 Cat People remake, [safe], and the most shamelessly smutty gialli you can name until all its various influences meld into one barely cohesive, unholy erotic nightmare. It’s a narratively & thematically messy film that gleefully taps into sexual taboos to set its audience on edge, then springs a surreal horror film on them once they’re in that vulnerable state. Double Lover is not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller. It’s a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare.

A 25-year-old, gaunt ex-model becomes fed up with medical professionals dismissing a mysterious stomach pain she’s suffered her entire life. With few options left to search for a cure, she turns to psychiatry, interrogating her doctors’ claims that her symptoms are psychosomatic. Early therapy session are tame, with her doctor listening intently to her life’s story & list of ailments, offering an open ear more than any verbalized advice. The act of listening is eroticized in this early stretch and the pair become an unlikely couple, complete with a handsome shared apartment & a mischievous house cat. Reality melts around them from there. It turns out the psychiatrist is hiding the existence of a twin brother, who operates his own mental health practice nearby. Our troubled protagonist is both obsessed with the mystery of why her lover would lie about the existence of his twin and turned on by the erotic implications of there being a physical copy of the man she loves. She, of course, investigates the twin’s competing psychiatry practice and finds his . . . unconventional methods as alluring as they are taboo. In a traditional erotic thriller, her sexual affair with her lover’s twin brother and the mystery of the dual psychiatrists’ past would drive the plot home from there. Indeed, the violent confrontations you’d typically expect from that setup do arrive in due time, but the circumstances surrounding them are both too supernatural & too perverse to wholly predict. Double Lover’s basic premise is a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness, there’s no bounds to its erotic mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety.

Aesthetically, Double Lover filters the pseudointellectual smut of the most illogical giallo pictures in existence through the color-muted, urban visual lens of Brian De Palma (who was already heavily influenced by giallo himself). De Palma’s clinically-applied split screens are abound throughout the picture, visually echoing the theme of twins & doubles just as much as its obsession with mirrors (seriously, it feels like over half of the runtime is framed through mirrored reflections). The visual provocations are blunt & unsubtle, humorously so. The film opens with an intense, medical closeup of a gynecological exam, then dissolves into a similarly-framed eye, directly referencing Georges Bataille. The protagonist picks up part-time work at an art museum, which allows for artistically framed photography of medical gore in a clinical but abstract setting, in an exhibit seemingly titled “BLOOD, FLESH, BLOOD, FLESH.” Like many gialli, the film often resembles a fashion shoot more than a horror movie, with almost any given frame practically being able to pass for a Vogue magazine cover (minus maybe the gore and the sex). Many audiences will dismiss this handsome, cold aesthetic as pretentious drivel, but there’s a dry humor to the film’s fashionable psychosexual madness. As our protagonist enters a staring contest with her cat mid-fucking, as the frame fills with a funhouse hall of mirrors at the climax, as each sinister sex dream reveals another layer of gleefully taboo desire, it’s clear the film is having fun with its over-the-top indulgences. It’s just doing so with a straight face.

I wouldn’t exactly call Double Lover an empty provocation. Its (well-founded) paranoia over men’s control & dismissal of women within the medical field is a legitimate strand of psychological terror with a rich history in the horror genre (and in real life). Its fretting over the power dynamics of a dominant (evil?) twin and their submissive (good?) twin is outdated psychobabble, but an interesting lens for viewing the power dynamics of romantic coupling in general. These themes are conspicuously present and exhaustively explored throughout, but it would be a lie to say they’re the film’s main draw. Double Lover is a blast because it shamelessly indulges in excess. Its shots of mirrored reflections persist long after the audience catches onto their significance. Its nightmare logic makes little attempt to justify its narrative trajectory outside the fun & the discomfort of its surprise. Its horror genre indulgences are entirely unconcerned with remaining highbrow, even risking its art film pedigree on a series of jump scares in the increasingly bonkers third act. Its external influences are blatantly displayed on the surface, with a reference to “steel gynecological instruments meant for torture” directly calling attention to its similarities with Dead Ringers within the opening ten minutes. Most importantly, though, its indulgences in onscreen, kinky sex are frequent, disturbing, and often genuinely erotic. Your comfort level with deliberate shock value provocation will likely steer your experience with the film overall, even though it’s far from the only factor at play.

Given Double Lover’s willingness to indulge in kink-minded titillation and its completely disinterest in subtlety, I should probably be more forgiving of its flippant comparisons to the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. I have two major roadblocks preventing me form that accepting that, though. First, I’m deeply invested in the film being understood as a continued tradition within the dream logic surrealism of the horror genre, not just a throwback as an erotic thriller. More importantly, though, I want to single out Double Lover as being an exceptional example of my favorite type of filmmaking: Elevated Art Cinema™ techniques applied to trashy, genre-minded premises that typically aren’t afforded them. This movie is dumb, crass, exploitative, trope-laden, and more than a little silly. It’s also a gorgeous work of fine art that disarms its audience with its nonstop onslaught of inelegant indulgences as a means of crawling under their skin and rotting them from the inside. It’s so much more than a less tame Fifty Shades. Its kinks are just the surface of its bizarre sense of psychological menace, a deep well of oversexed paranoia & manicured evil. Double Lover is an over-indulgent, preposterous film and, paradoxically, a perfect one.

-Brandon Ledet

Kink (2014)

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There’s a crippling sense of pointlessness at the heart of Kink, a recent documentary about the BDSM pornography company Kink.com. It’s not just that anyone who would be inclined to watch the film in the first place is already likely to be on board with its “kink porn is not unhealthy” message; it’s also that the film plays more like a long form advertisement than a proper documentary. Kink is more akin to an infomercial, a DVD extra, or a decade-late episode of HBO’s Real Sex than it is to a fully invested exploration of the subject at hand. By focusing on a single production company’s output & ethos, it feels less like a document of where kink porn is today and more like an aggressive PR assertion of where Kink.com is today, which is not necessarily as worthwhile of a subject.

As practicing sadists, Kink.com is obviously very much worried about coming across as “axe wielding maniacs”, so much of the run time is softening that image. Actors are shown expressing “pain” & then practicing the expression of “pain” off-camera. There are a lot of looming hard-ons bouncing around the set, but they’re slapped & tickled in an irreverent manner that says “We’re having fun here, y’all! I swear! So much fun!” The producers try to pose the company as a sort of mom & pop operation that started in a college dorm room (every young perv’s dream) and somehow blossomed into a successful business. But not too successful, though. They want you to know that in comparison to other porn giants, they’re the small-time outsiders, saying “If pornography was high school, we would be the goth table. We’d be the art kids.” All of this aggressive PR is supposed to make the company’s scary flogging, spanking, and out-of-control fuck machines more palatable to a wider audience, but it’s hard to imagine that it’s winning anyone over who wasn’t already down with what it’s selling.

Preaching to the choir is not the only problem with Kink’s assertion that Kink.com’s brand of BDSM porn is a-okay. It also just doesn’t have much to say once it establishes that consensual BDSM play is healthy. That’s not to say the film is completely devoid of entertainment. If nothing else, it’s kind of cute in its matter-of-fact pre-coitus negotiations of what will & won’t go down. As I mentioned in my review of The Duke of Burgundy, the sub is firmly in charge in most BDSM scenarios, despite what most people would expect, so it’s amusing here to watch them call the shots before shooting scenes.  Even at a mere 80min, however, this message isn’t enough to carry the film and there’s a lot of redundant feet-dragging that sinks any good vibes it had cultivated along the way. The closest the film comes to challenging itself is in a brief questioning of how money muddles consent and (after its assertion that BDSM porn doesn’t promote rape) the filming of a home invasion scenario that is very much a distinct rape fantasy. Otherwise, it lets its subject off the hook. As a documentary, Kink is mostly harmless. I was a little bored with its repetition, a little cynical of its blatant advertising, and very much annoyed with the obnoxious, wailing orgasm moans that droned on & on & on, but its biggest fault is that it didn’t push itself harder, instead opting to cover one small facet of a truly fascinating topic that deserves a closer, more critical look.

Side note: When the end credits revealed that Kink was “Produced by James Franco” I thought to myself, “Of course it was.”

-Brandon Ledet