15 Great Films That Explore Sadomasochistic Desire
“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.” – Marquis de Sade
“The more you hurt me as you have just done, the more you fire my heart and inflame my senses.” – Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
In the 19th century, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud were pioneers in the field of psychology and helped in the categorization of terms that defined and expanded the way people thought about human behavior and sexuality.
Two terms that each helped popularize, sadism and masochism, have been subjects explored by artists, photographers, and filmmakers. Luis Buñuel said, “The cinema is an instrument of poetry, with all that word can imply of the sense of liberation, of subversion of reality, of the threshold of the marvelous world of the subconscious, of nonconformity with the limited society that surrounds us.” This quotation seems especially apropos for films that seek to examine and reveal emotions and desires that are deemed controversial, taboo, or exist at the fringes of social acceptability.
Buñuel’s statement can also be understood in the more progressive attitude in filmmaking toward the depiction of sex and desire in movies, with European filmmakers often being more daring in their exploration of sexual subject matter than their more reticent American counterparts.
Masochism, derived from the writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, refers to a sexual need to experience pain. Sadism, borrowed from the progenitor of modern pornographic writing and discourse, the Marquis de Sade, involves receiving pleasure from inflicting pain on others. The following films, many of which are now regarded as cinema classics, have all generated a fair amount of controversy and censorship upon their release.
Sadomasochistic narratives provide a vehicle for exposing unequal power dynamics between individuals as well as inequity on a much larger scale. Sadomasochism is not just about pushing the boundaries of acceptability;
it is also about confronting taboos and challenging norms that extend beyond the body and into the arena of the sexual and political, and thus its very representation in film can be a powerful tool for reimagining and challenging stereotypes about gender, power and relationships in real world settings.
1. Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
From the film’s famous opening scene to its ambiguous ending, Luis Buñuel’s erotic masterpiece created a stir in the late sixties with Catherine Deneuve as the icy and naive, yet beautiful, domestic wife whose fantasies eventually lead her to work in a Parisian brothel.
Belle de Jour is the best, earliest and most influential of films on this list because it provides a blueprint for how to take taboo subjects such as prostitution, sexual abuse/trauma, and sadomasochism and turn it into a fascinating and occasionally humorous cerebral investigation into the power of fantasy and the imagination.
It can be viewed as a psychological study of how western bourgeois women are often taught to deny and repress their sexual urges rather than understand and explore them. Buñuel uses surrealism to show how dreams and fantasies are just as important as any form of reality we choose to embrace.
2. Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002)
After her release from a mental hospital, Lee Holloway finds herself at home once again in a volatile family atmosphere that includes an alcoholic, abusive father. In order to deal with the stress of family dysfunction and her own feelings of personal dissatisfaction,
Lee takes solace the way she has since the seventh grade—by cutting and inflicting other forms of self-induced pain on her body. This attempt to alleviate her psychic distress changes when she is offered a position as secretary to the lawyer Mr. Grey. Known for playing unusual and offbeat characters,
Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader are secretary and boss who gradually become involved in a sadomasochistic relationship that originates in a professional capacity and gradually becomes more intimate and personal.
Secretary takes the relationship between employee and boss, which by definition is based on an inequity of power, and examines it in terms of sexual boundaries and social taboos. Gyllenhaal exudes a quirkiness, vulnerability, and warmth that make her easy to identify and sympathize with. While on the surface the story might appear to be another misogynistic example whereby the woman is cast as powerless and merely passive or submissive to a man, it challenges any such simplistic view.
3. Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973)
“You and I are gonna meet here without knowing anything that goes on outside here,” says widower Paul to Jeanne, a woman he meets by chance in an apartment both are viewing to rent. The two end up agreeing to meet for regular sexual liaisons. They agree not to reveal their names to each other in an attempt to keep the outside world separate from their daily trysts.
Risqué at the time, the film is really about the ways in which sex can provide temporary respite from grief and ennui; it is an attempt to forget that human beings are ultimately alone. Paul’s grief over the death of his wife fuels his anger and sadness that manifests itself in the form of violent outbursts and aggressive sex between him and Jeanne.
At the time of its release, Pauline Kael in her movie review of the film proclaimed, “this must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made,” going on to say that “Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form.”
Jean-Louis Trintignant was first offered the part of Paul, eventually played by Marlon Brando, but declined it because he wasn’t comfortable with the nudity and sex scenes. The film, however, is not simply powerful because of the sex but also the heightened emotions displayed by the two protagonists. Gato Barbieri’s seductive and melancholy score imbues the film with a sensual and inauspicious undercurrent.
4. Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan (Kirby Dick, 1997)
Filmmaker Kirby Dick creates a remarkably intimate portrait of the late masochistic enthusiast and performance artist Bob Flanagan. When Flanagan died in 1996 at the age of 43, he was the oldest living person with cystic fibrosis. This documentary explores the connection between his physical disease and the way in which those who practice s/m are often regarded as “sick” and “perverse.”
According to Flanagan, he began practicing self-mutilation and body modification at a young age in his parents’ basement and found that it helped alleviate some of the pain and discomfort associated with CF. Later on, he incorporated his personal fantasies into performance art exhibitions where he shocked, entertained, and educated people about his disease and the community of s/m practitioners.
He became so well known that he was featured in the Nine Inch Nails video “Happiness in Slavery.” The film does a great job showing actual footage from some of his exhibitions, providing viewers with recurring themes in his art, life, and poetry. Importantly, it also resonates emotionally with the audience by showing the day-to-day struggles of someone with CF and the intimate details of his relationship with longtime partner, Sheree Rose, who played a crucial role in his life and work.
5. In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)
Because of the strict production code laws in Japan regarding pornographic images, director Nagisa Oshima had to send the reels to France to be developed and edited. Oshima’s film is based on the real life account of Sada Abe, a prostitute whose scandalous relationship with Kichi Ishida leads to tragedy. What makes this film notable, and at the time widely censored, are the scenes of unsimulated sex: one of the first movies to attempt to break down the distinction between pornography and feature films.
In spite of the pornographic aspects of the film, it is really about the unusual and intense love the two shared that makes this film poignant and memorable. As the two grow closer and more passionate, they begin to experiment with rougher, more violent forms of erotic expression. One of the things this film attempts to do is revive the erotic art tradition that was so popular in Japanese culture in previous centuries, showing how drawings and paintings of the time were a celebration of sex.
6. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
Based on Elfriede Jelinek’s bestselling novel, the eponymous piano teacher is played by Isabelle Huppert, known for her affinity for unconventional and emotionally complex characters.
Michael Haneke, whose films always focus on the mechanisms of violence in society, trains his gaze on the impulses of Erika, who exhibits both masochistic and sadistic urges. Erika finds it difficult to connect and empathize with others in any meaningful way, so her emotions and passion are sublimated into her music, and her violent tendencies directed at herself, her mother, and her students.
At first the appearance of the Walter Klemmer, an engineer student who plays the piano and shares her love of classical music, unsettles her. Nevertheless, the two embark on an ill-fated course that involves physical and psychological control, violence and obsession.
7. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)
Some of the persistent themes in the films of Fassbinder are the ways in which love and relationships ultimately boil down to a power struggle: how the one who loves more is always the one who gets hurt.
In Petra von Kant, the sadomasochistic elements are not physical but rather psychological. Petra’s love for Karin is mirrored by her assistant Marlene’s desire for Petra. The entire film is set in Petra’s apartment, mostly in the bedroom. Fassbinder’s deft use of camera movement and close-ups prevent it from feeling claustrophobic and static, offering an intense viewing experience regarding the pleasure and pain produced by desire for another.
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