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

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)

EPSON MFP image

twohalfstar

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