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15 Great Films That Explore Sadomasochistic Desire

27 April 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Daxton Norton

best sm movies

“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)

Belle de Jour

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)

Secretary

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)

Last Tango in Paris

“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)

Sick The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan

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)

oshima in the realm of senses

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)

the-piano-teacher

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)

Die bitteren Tranen der Petra von Kant

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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  • Eric Robert Wilkinson

    Where blue velvet at

  • Gordon Knox

    Great list. Yasuzô Masumura’s Blind Beast would fit perfectly in this list as well

  • hasdlk213

    Where is The Story Of O, Blue Velvet and last but not least 50 Shades of Grey 😛

    • Nico Ruesch

      Blue Velvet, I don’t know why it’s not here. 50 SOG, it’s not here because its “15 GREAT Films That Explore Sadomasochistic Desire” 😀

  • Nice list, but i miss Blue Velvet here

  • Shaun Hughes

    Kelly + Victor is a great recent example

  • Esdras Castiliano

    Nymphomaniac!

    • Bryton Cherrier

      Oh god no.

      • Ana Claudia Praconi Rodrigues

        Oh god no. [2]

        • denis24

          Oh god no. [3]

          • Marshall Pacheco

            Oh god no. [4]

          • Ozymandias

            Oh god no. [5]

          • David Lee Fuhrmaneck

            Oh god no. [6]

    • Andres Abad

      Sadomasoquism in Nymphomaniac is just one of the multiple enviroments Von trier tried to recreate “unfullfilled sex sadness” with Charlotte Gainsbourg, not the main plot of the movie.
      Antichrist isn`t sadistic even but im glad it was on this list.. just because is one of my favorite movies from LVT.

  • Bryton Cherrier

    I despise BDScuMbags, I will never (and for the most part, don’t want to) know what makes them tick and what makes them the way they are. Salo and Antichrist are just ugly and desturbing films that really question you if you’re wasting your life right now.

    • Lord Darque

      Nobody cares. Go troll somewhere else.

      • Bryton Cherrier

        First of all, I am not a troll I was being serious. Two, how am I being hateful? Last time I checked, a lot of society is extremely welcoming towards denouncing and unassociatr those who get off pain in mainstream society.

      • Nancy Hall

        Bryton is respectfully sharing an opinion. You’re responding as he was insulting you, personally. I happen to agree with him. I’ve liked some of the movies listed here, but I regard the practice of sadomasochism in real life to be disturbing. I’m not inclined that way myself and I don’t want to know more about it. If you’re into sadomasochism, and it sounds like you are, I respect your orientation and your choices, but I don’t especially want to watch movies whose plots and imagery delve deeply into these practices. I’ve avoided seeing both Salo and Antichrist and have no curiosity about them .

    • Klaus Dannick

      Then why did you waste your time reading the article? (For the record, I’ve never seen Salo, but I have seen Antichrist, and, I’ll agree with you that it has no value at all).

      • Bryton Cherrier

        Just wanted to state how I feel towards this subject, I comment on a lot of these post in general.

        • ophelia

          Calling people “scumbags” is a great way to state your opinion on the subject. Sure.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Looking For Mr Goodbar?

  • Lord Darque

    Pretty good list but I second the suggestions of both Blue Velvet and The Story of O.

  • I absollutly LOVE Crash, and the book is great too

  • Philip Chidel

    The Thief The Cook His Wife and Her Lover. !!!
    And yes, absolutely, Blue Velvet should be on this list.

  • Sophiaso

    Quills?

  • RockyJohan

    People calling Antichrist a misogynistic film are total idiots blinded by some kind of weird feminist ideology. Von Triers is using his female characters as representations off himself while working trough his own demons.

    People ask why we cant have interesting female characters that has to go trough real shit on the screen. And then when we finally get them they accuse the filmmaker for being sexist. Perfect.

    • Andres Abad

      I wonder the same. LVT tries to show us real agony and oppression to women with serious problems and repercusions no “simple girl o wife” could confront and succed.
      Von Trier’s women are brave. They are sinned against and sinning. Whether admirable, pitiable, or repellent, they are interesting. Nicole Kidman reportedly once asked von Trier, “Why are you so evil to women?”—but couldn’t one ask the same of so many filmmakers who deal solely in shopaholic singles and grasping Bridezillas and buzz-kill spouses? Von Trier has got hang-ups, no question. But his saving grace is that he couldn’t give an actress a standard “wife” or “girlfriend” role if his life depended on it.

      -Jessica Winter

  • Esteban De la Serna

    Where is Black Swan from Aronofsky? I don’t know if I’m the only one who interpretated that masterpiece as a way of reacción perfection throughout sex and death, I mean the theory of Sabina Spielrein and Freud about the death pulsion and How the ego can be destroyed by sexual desires. By the way, here would algo be “A Dangerous Method” from Cronenberg, which is the biographical depiction of Spielrein, Freud and Jung!

  • Rich G

    Ichi the killer. Really missed a trick there. That film is sadomasochism through and through. Don’t tell me its not a great film, the whole thing is pretty tongue in cheek in its own comically surreal and deeply disturbed way.
    Khakihara is the ultimate sadomasochist.

  • Domina Jemma

    Great selection of films but I am not appreciating the use of the term
    ‘power inequity’ in your description of S&M, practitioners prefer
    the term ‘power exchange’ because submission is a gift and dominance a
    great responsibility, it’s a dynamic based on deep trust and mutual
    consent. The definition of the term inequity is ‘a lack of fairness or
    justice’ and in this context implies that one party is taking advantage
    of the other, in this case it would be abuse, not a healthy SM
    relationship. The term inequity would be better used to refer to the
    sexploitation genre not S&M.

  • luke

    Mike Leigh’s underrated 1993 movie : NAKED

  • William Gortowski

    From Japan, Be My Slave (2012) and Sweet Whip (2013).

  • SoccerBeatz
  • Daniel J

    Moonlight Whispers, Lies (Korean), R100, Duke of Burgundy

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