Preaching about the perverted: sadomasochistic romance on screen
The whips, the leather get-ups, the gimp masks, the body modification, the contraptions (swings, cages, you name it): all often make their appearance in films across all genres, from comedies to thrillers, drama, horror and of course erotic films. There are usually three ways in which BDSM culture is represented cinematically: for titillation (The Story of O, 1975; or many of Japanese pink films, like Flower and Snake, 2004); for laughs, usually dressing up someone in leather or fetish gear as an object of mockery (Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell in Exit to Eden, 1994); or as a warning of ‘deviant’ behaviour (8mm, 1999).
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There is a salaciousness to films that let us, the viewers, into these dark rooms. Most films that feature BDSM in one way or another take a distinctly external approach. The camera is used only to paint the background, and uninterested in understanding the psychology, boundaries and distinct form of intimacy of sadomasochistic practices. It’s strictly a voyeuristic pursuit, and unifies all kinks into one, usually leather-clad mass.
In Cruising (1980), Pacino’s strait-laced cop needs to infiltrated the gay leather bar scene in his pursuit of a serial killer. The BDSM scene is the background, a hidden, underground scene that is privy to ‘degenerate’ behaviour. The film was heavily criticised by the LGBT activists at the time of its production and release, fearing that it misrepresented the gay community.
Not all fetishists
Let’s start by distinguishing portraits of the BDSM scene (fetish clubs and the working practices of dominatrixes) from portraits of sadomasochistic relationships have been portrayed – not all S&M relationships will necessarily partake in the wider BDSM scene.
In the 2002 indie drama Secretary, Lee (Maggie Gylenhaal), a young woman with a history of self-harm, finds herself in a sadomasochistic (but initially not sexual) relationship with her boss, the tightly-wound, obsessive lawyer Mr. Grey (James Spader). After a forced distancing from her dom, Lee puts out a personal ad as a submissive looking for a dom. There is a montage of the different types of fetishists she meets, trying to find another good match for her particular predilections. She is unsuccessful, but her encounters with different types of fetishists solidify her own proclivities, and make her relationship with Mr. Grey even more necessary and honest.
When films do take a more internal approach, focusing mainly on the relationship between two characters, or the interior life of someone discovering their own proclivity towards domination or submission (like Catherine Deneuve’s bored housewife does in 1967’s Belle du jour), they tend to focus on the fantasy rather than on a consensual relationship.
Fifty Shades of Grey, both in book and film (2015-18) form, took a fan fic approach to S&M and made it mainstream, but is essentially as vanilla as it gets. Before it came the much more explicitly erotic 9½ Weeks (1985). Both phenomena were mainstream Hollywood’s take on a dominant-submissive relationship, and both address the power dynamics on the simplest terms: a heteronormative couple, with a dominant male partner who also has more economic and social power, forms an explicit contract with a submissive, younger woman. The emphasis is on the psychology, really, or even the power dynamics – it’s the same vanilla straight sex, with a bit of PG-13 bondage thrown on top. In Secretary, Lee’s relationship builds slowly, and evolves into a romantic relationship of acceptance and honesty between two characters who are barely able to express themselves verbally.
Sadomasochistic pixie dream girl
Seldom, however, is the dominant-submissive relationship presented as, well, a relationship. The most intriguing, nuanced films that centre BDSM relationships usually prioritise a one-on-one relationship between a dominant and a submissive.
While Secretary looks at a S&M relationship finding its feet, and the particular language that Lee and Mr. Grey share (mostly involving spanking, typos and other bratty behaviour), Peter Strickland’s sensuous drama The Duke of Burgundy (2015) explores a relationship already established, between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and the submissive Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who is actually wielding all the power. Consent and the power dynamics are explored in the film, particularly the balance of power that exists within a S&M relationship, and particularly how the submissive is actually the one in control, with their submission always being conditional to their full consent and willingness. In The Duke of Burgundy, it is Evelyn who engineers the situations and plays that they engage in.
The Duke of Burgundy (2014)
There is a clear fixation with the figure of the dominatrix, usually presented as a woman of clear boundaries, professionalism and an object of both fascination and repulsion. Very often, she is presented as – all at once! – a deviant to be avoided, an unruly woman to be tamed and an object of desire.
In Maitresse (1975), Gérard Dépardieu’s small-time thief falls for and becomes an assistant for the dominatrix Ariane (Bulle Olgier), but believes her to be coerced into her job, and that his role must be to be her saviour. Similarly, in A Woman in Flames (1983), a German drama that centres on divorcée Eva’s discovery of the S&M world and her own satisfaction in being a dominatrix, it’s her live-in boyfriend who also tries to whisk her away with promises of marriage, which she rebuffs.
A rare example of a dominatrix presented as a fully fledged character within the fetish scene is Tanya Cheex (Guinevere Turner) in Preaching to the Perverted. “A goddess, to be worshiped by all” is how she defines herself, and how she is presented on screen, from the first moment she appears on stage in the middle of a fetish performance.
In Stuart Urban’s comedy, the pageantry and community of the BDSM scene is prioritised as much as the central (mainly educational, as well as sexual) relationship between Tanya and Tom. She is gentle but straightforward, and unapologetically prioritises her pleasure and a clear, communicative relationship with her ‘slaves’. She puts a collar on her newest slave, Tom, “To show that you’re mine. But if you want it off your neck at any time I’ll do it. And you can walk away.”
Preaching to the Perverted (1997)
Despite being tonally a dark comedy, Preaching to the Perverted centres the idea of consent and its vital importance in the BDSM scene. In a scene where a submissive is about to get a marking carved into her arm, Tanya, ‘the Mistress’, spots this, stops the situation and asks the submissive if she wanted that to happen. When the answer is no, she goes on to chastise the domme and establish the rules by which they must all abide: “All scenes are based on consent. Parameters must be clearly stated.” The domme gets punished for her transgression.
Preaching for the Perverted makes very explicit the vital importance of consent and boundaries in any sadomasochistic encounter or relationship. Tanya sets the boundaries clearly with her slaves, and in particular with Peter, an inexperienced young man sent to spy on her by a conservative MP, who she educates into her world. When he tries to cuddle her one morning, she rebuffs him: “This is vanilla, this doesn’t happen.” When another one of her slaves, a woman, declares her love for Tanya, she rebuffs her. No one can ‘have’ her. Tom repeatedly tries to save her from having her club raided by the police and her arrested. It’s this rejection of being anyone’s property, and steadfast security in her own identity, that makes a dominatrix a fascinating character.
The submissive gaze
J-P. Valkeapaa’s latest feature, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, both leans into and subverts these tropes. The film makes for one of the most emotionally smart and tender explorations of a sadomasochistic relationship since Secretary or The Duke of Burgundy, without forgoing the pageantry of the scene.
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (2019)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants’s dominatrix Mona (Krist Kosonen) is a more mysterious figure than her cinematic predecessors, in that we never learn as much about her as we do about Tanya Cheex, Ariane or Eva. We see her almost exclusively performing her dominatrix duties, and she bluntly states that she “doesn’t like ordinary things”. She’s in this because it’s part of who she is. The focus of the film is very much on the submissive, the grieving widower Juha (Pekka Strang). His entry into the world of sadomasochism is entirely accidental: he stumbles into a private session that goes off in the back room of the tattoo parlour where he takes his daughter to get her tongue pierced.
Juha falls into the scenario, a S&M meet-cute if there ever was one, without really knowing what he’s getting into. He ends up being asphyxiated and experiences something akin to an emotional release. The film focuses on his consensual submission to Mona, their agreement reflected visually in the balance of both characters’ faces, and the emphasis on how Mona studies his face, making sure he’s okay and not being pushed too far.
When we’re talking about consent and communication, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants uses the close-up in ways that few other films that explore dominant-submissive relationships do. Closing in on Juha and Mona’s faces, dispensing with much of the aesthetic artifice associated with cinematic portrayals of bondage, Valkeapaa focuses on finding the breaking point of his character: how far a person who is going through grief and trauma can push himself. Is this Juha hurting himself or is this him processing trauma? Tightly wound and denying his own pain, Juha finds through releasing control a profound experience and connection. It’s Mona’s job to make sure she’s facilitating that process, not enabling self-harm.
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (2019)
Valkeapaa spends the film going deeper into their connection, saving the close-up POV shots for the peak moments. The film is about the connection of these gazes, prioritising consent and emotional connection rather than leather binds.