Still in the grip of 50 Shades madness? Have you seen the movie? Gonna see it again? Flipping out over the rumor that Jamie Dornan isn’t coming back? Wendy Leigh, author of the erotic “Unraveled” e-book series, has been thinking about the Fifty Phenomenon a lot, and here’s what she has to say…
This weekend, when fans see “Fifty Shades of Grey” for the second or third times and love it even more than ever, all the carping critics will, once more, be proved to be archaic sticks-in-the-mud. Nonetheless, all the same old criticisms that the movie features violence and abuse and that it is darker than dark will yet again be flung at “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
But to quote the motto of Lillie Langtry, a king’s mistress and one of the greatest courtesans who ever lived: ‘”They say, What say they? Let them say…” At the same time, I invite you to come with me on a whistle-stop tour of films that have featured BDSM and which, anyone who has seen them will agree, make “Fifty Shades of Grey,” look like “Bambi” in comparison.
Let me take you back to the far off forties, long before we were even thought of and to a film entitled ‘The Seventh Veil,” featuring the saturnine James Mason as a cane-wielding Svengali who dominates the mouse-like Anne Todd–and she loves it! Although he doesn’t actually cane her, he certainly controls her every move, every emotion, and she bows to his every demand far more slavishly than Anastasia ever would. Plus, in a chilling scene, he slashes his ubiquitous cane across a chair and the implication is clear.
Dark and sinister? No question.
Then on to the licentious sixties, and “Belle De Jour,”starring the pristinely pure, blonde and beautiful Catherine Deneuve as the middle class housewife who moonlights at a brothel, and along the way, has lurid BDSM fantasies which far eclipse anything to which Christian subjects Anastasia. In one detailed scene, she is tied up and humiliated by having mud flung at her, and in a second, far more explicit scene, she is tied to the branch of a tree, stripped topless, and then whipped by two valets as hard and viciously as they can manage.
And as for the seventies, I can probably name a dozen movies that depict BDSM unflinchingly and in a myriad different ways, as befitting what some might term a performance art. “Caligula,” for example, produced by Penthouse Magazine’s Bob Guccione. Bob was a dominant in real life, as I know only too well: he published my first book, What Makes a Woman G.I.B* (Good In Bed) and he detailed his sexual proclivities to me in person–in no uncertain terms.
Caligula takes all kinds of liberties with Roman history, and more still with a legion of willing and compliant female slaves, in XXX-rated scenes which make “Fifty Shades” look like Mary Poppins in comparison. In fact, the movie’s director, Tinto Brass, had form in the genre, and, in 1976, made the darker than dark “Salon Kitty” set in a German brothel, where BDSM abounds.
The antithesis of Fifty, “Salon Kitty,” like 1976’s “The Night Porter,” in which former concentration camp inmate Charlotte Rampling is reunited with the camp commandant who once terrorized her, and together, they re-enact what I would sooner term sadomasochistic – as opposed to BDSM – scenes, taints the ‘lifestyle’ with Nazism, a dark and sinister association if ever there was one.
In the seventies, too, but in a far more romantic vein, Lina Wertmuller, the director of “The Night Porter,” also made the movie, “Swept Away,” the original of which Madonna made a pale and vapid imitation later down the line. “Swept Away” is a classic master/slave saga, and centers around an aristocratic, wealthy woman who is stranded on a desert island with one of her servants, whereupon the roles are flipped and she becomes his slave. Romantic and erotic as the movie may be, there are scenes in which he slaps her face hard, and she grovels to him, which are far darker and more tinged with what Fifty’s critics would term violence, although – given that what transpires is consensual – I don’t, even in this context, agree.
And then there is the granddaddy – or is it grandma? of them all; the movie of “The Story of O” which, like the iconic book, features the far side of BDSM in all its kaleidoscopic variations. In particular, there is the scene in which O is given to her maid to be whipped, not lightly, but heavily, and she glories in every second of her whipping. And although this scene was subsequently cut from the movie, it was included in the original version as shown in theaters throughout America, and left “Fifty” in the dust, in terms of heavy BDSM.
In the eighties, in “Nine and a Half Weeks” (both the movie and the book of the same name), BDSM is presented in a more soft-focus light, similar to “Fifty,” but is still stronger, more detailed, and perhaps more shocking. There is also the 1987, “Personal Services,” a fictionalised version of the life of the aptly named Cynthia Payne, who ran an S&M brothel (as it was then termed) in a London suburb and which features scene after scene of whippings, spankings and countless aspects of BDSM in living color. In the 90s, albeit in a non-fiction documentary, Nick Bromfield turns the spotlight on commercial BDSM once more, and his “Fetishes” features Pandora’s Box, a Manhattan BDSM fantasy parlor, and tells the real life story of the clients, including scenes of ‘breath play’ and an in-depth interview with a masochistic female client who is punished by a group of mistresses and, as a result, is transported into ecstasy.
In contrast, “Secretary” is a fictionalized depiction of BDSM, and without going into extensive detail, the dominant (also named Grey) subjects the submissive, played convincingly by Maggie Gyllenhaal, to a far heavier spanking than any to which Ana has to submit in “Fifty.”
More recently, in 2011, “A Dangerous Method,” starring Keira Knightly and Michael Fassbender, tells the true story of psychoanalyst, Carl Jung and his patient, Sabina Spielrein, who burns with masochistic fantasies which he is only too pleased to satisfy. The scenes in which Fassbinder takes a belt to Keira Knightly–the relish with which he does so and the burning ardour in his eyes that of a classic dominant–are far more extreme and darker than any scene in “Fifty” so far.
Which brings me to 2013’s “Nymphomaniac 11,” in which the heroine played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of Serge and Jane Birkin, whose “Je ’T’aime Moi Non Plus” was a sixties anthem to eroticism, and which should probably now be re-released as the time is clearly ripe…) is so consumed by her desire to be dominated sexually that she visits K, played by Jamie Bell. In scenes of brutal punishment, highlighted by close-ups of the ravages wrought on Charlotte after what can only be described as a beating and a savage whipping, however violent the proceedings, one thing is clear; Charlotte not only consents to submit to every stroke, she also craves it.
All in all, a whistle-stop tour of past movies depicting BDSM seems to me to prove one thing; in comparison, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a gentle, romantic, beautiful movie and a million miles away from violence, rape or brutality. If anything, I believe that it is closer to a fairy tale. Cinderella, of course, but more than that: Sleeping Beauty, but with a twist. For instead of Anastasia being a sleeping princess, awoken by the Prince, the genius of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” both the book and the movie, is that it revolves round a dramatic role reversal. Christian is the sleeping prince, and Anastasia awakens him to vanilla love and romance.
Which is not to insinuate that BDSM is negative. Or that Vanilla is preferable. It’s 2015, and sexual freedom reigns at last…
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