15 Great Films That Explore Sadomasochistic Desire

8. Love is the Devil: Study for the Portrait of Francis Bacon (John Maybury, 1998)

Love is the Devil Study for the Portrait of Francis Bacon

Derek Jacobi dramatizes Francis Bacon’s life in an intense performance that reveals his volatile relationship with his lover George Dyer and creates a complex psychological portrait of the artist.

The film leaves viewers with the idea that the artist was a masochist in his sexual life (Bacon:“Submitting entirely to the service and pleasure of the dominant partner. This I find a catharsis, in that all responsibility is relinquished, every move is dictated. No decisions are your own, who exists solely for the service and pleasure of another man”) and somewhat of a snippy sadist with friends, and especially Dyer.

Bacon is considered one of the best modern artists of the twentieth century. Becoming popular in the 1940s, unlike many of his contemporaries he still felt the human figure in art was a subject that had not been exhausted. His figures often seem to be in the throes of suffering and despair and must be understood in the context of the horrors of modern warfare and the Holocaust. The film successfully articulates and approximates the emotional and psychological undercurrents found in Bacon’s paintings.

From an aesthetic and artistic point of view, the film is “painterly.” Although Bacon’s estate refused director John Mayberry access to his paintings, the film mimics them by using the camera to distort images, giving the look of the film a similar quality to the figures he painted. This is achieved through the use of wide-angle lenses, elongated faces and bodies, double exposures, and elements of horror and ecstasy. Overall, this interpretation of Bacon is a fascinating glimpse into the artist’s life.


9. The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)


Controversial for its linkage of Nazism with sadomasochism, Liliana Cavani’s divisive story focuses on a Nazi officer (Dirk Bogarde) and a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) who meet by chance in Vienna in 1957. In the film, fascism becomes eroticized through its depiction of absolute power, symbolized by Nazi regalia and paraphernalia. In this instance,

it isn’t so much the depictions of sadomasochism itself that is problematic and disconcerting to some viewers and critics, but the very notion of Nazism as a platform for staging any form of erotic desire between captive and captor, especially one between a German and a Jew. Additionally, the film raises ethical questions concerning film spectatorship, representations of the Holocaust, witnessing atrocity and testimony, and the blurring of consensual sexual boundaries.


10. Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)

Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom

The Republic of Salò was an extension of Nazi Germany in Italy during World War II, led by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Pasolini sets the film within that historical context. Subtitling his film with a reference to the Marquis De Sade’s book that catalogues a range of sexual acts, many of which are still considered to be aberrations, Pasolini creates a political allegory exploring the abuse of real power.

Unlike many other films on this list that emphasize masochism, Pasolini’s last film is notorious and shocking for its extreme sadism. Its depiction of cruelty, sexual violence and torture not only made it controversial but also caused it to be banned in many countries.

It would be a mistake to think that the director intended the viewer to derive any kind of pleasure from prevalence of nude bodies and sexual acts being performed; if pornography is defined by an attempt to elicit arousal from viewers then Salò is a disappointment, seeking rather to stimulate intellectually and emotionally. He does this through his use of intertextual references to philosophy, literature and literary criticism, long shots in order to critique systemic violence by making the viewer aware of her voyeurism.

The film is a testament to the depths of cruelty that human beings are capable of and an indictment of the ease at which people can watch the suffering of others without taking action to prevent it.


11. Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999)


Catherine Breillat is only one of two female directors on this list and one of the few female filmmakers to examine women’s sexuality in relation to desire. Her films are often the subject of controversy and censorship; this is unfortunate because controversy only serves to obfuscate and distract from the real and important themes Breillat addresses.

The title of the film is somewhat ironic because the protagonist, Marie, is unhappy with her boyfriend and their relationship. She sets out to explore her own desires by way of anonymous sexual encounters, some of which include bondage and masochism. Above all, the film is about the importance of fantasy and the different meanings it has for men and women.


12. Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013)


This film, adapted from a two-act play written by David Ives, which is itself an adaption of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella of the same title.

What begins as an audition for the main protagonist, Vanda, turns into an exploration of gender and sexual politics. Masoch, from whom the term “masochism” is derived, writes about how the male protagonist, Severin, wants to be submissive to another woman. This idea was new at the time because men have historically been identified with the sadistic impulse to inflict pain and women the masochist impulse to submit to men.

The character of Severin introduces a different kind of man whose imagination fueled by female dominance. The film engages viewers unfamiliar with Masoch with an intellectual discussion as to whether the play is sexist and if men want to “play” at being submissive or are still the ones who wield power over women. In an interesting bit of casting, Emmanuelle Seigner is Polanski’s wife and Mathieu Amalric, who resembles a younger version of the director, plays Thomas.


13. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)


The film opens with a gorgeous black and white sequence of a husband and wife having sex, intercut with scenes of their small child trying to escape from his crib. After he falls out of a window, the parents are forced to deal with their loss and guilt. Antichrist explores the couple’s loss and trauma, divided into four chapters—Grief, Pain, Despair and The Three Beggars.

Willem Dafoe plays the grieving husband and Charlotte Gainsbourg his wife, known only as He and She, retreat to a cabin (called Eden) in the woods to deal with the emotional aftermath. Nature, rather than being therapeutic for them, is simultaneously beautiful, haunting and brutish (She: “Nature is Satan’s church”). While He attempts to use his psychological methods to help She cope with her mental anguish and guilt, He remains emotionally unmoved and seemingly removed from his own grief.

As nature turns on them, they in turn, begin to take out their anger and self-loathing on each other. Some critics accused the filmmaker of making a misogynistic film, and there is some justification for that; however, it doesn’t detract from the emotional and provocative power of the movie as a whole.


14. Maîtresse (Barbet Schroeder, 1975)


Maîtresse (translated as “mistress”) is one of the earliest feature films to give audiences a glimpse into the private world of real life s/m practitioners and fetishists, and it does this without judgment.

Gerard Depardieu plays a thief who accidentally stumbles into this unknown, erotic world, and, like viewers, is allowed voyeuristically to observe it in all its theatricality. In this regard, it raises essential questions into the many manifestations of human desire, behavior, and sexuality that are often considered taboo and for this reason, fascinating.


15. Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)


David Cronenberg has been making films for decades that examine the intersection between extreme forms of violence and the human body, a subgenre referred to as body horror. In this movie, adapted from J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel, the impact of flesh and metal that result from car crashes becomes a way of feeling alive and connecting to others through the impact of technological violence.

Crash takes fetishism to a new level by eroticizing the fusion of metal and flesh and the scars and bodily openings created from these encounters. Like many films on this list, it is more of a cerebral foray into new types of erotic fantasies that hint at larger questions about human sexuality and identity via technology and its incorporation and extension of the self.

Author Bio: Daxton Norton is a professor of composition, film and literature and holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The University of Oregon, with an emphasis in film studies. He enjoys teaching students how to watch and think critically about movies.