While every lonely housewife and intellectually-repressed book club member in America flock to see the premier of 50 Shades of Grey, the adapted film of E.L. James’s book, I pull out of my bookshelf a copy of The Marquis De Sade’s Justine and say (pointer finger up): actually this came first.
Already getting the green light for not just one but two sequels before its release, the film is being acclaimed as the raunchiest film in more than a decade; one that includes twenty minutes of sex in all of its one-hundred-minute glory. Twenty minutes? Big whoop, right? You can get twice the action in a totally free, easily-accessed-online, devoid-of-plot, daddy-issue porno. But as my only reaction to 50 Shades is a mere “meh” than the generous amounts of mmm’s the book and film have received, I cannot help but feel Blockbuster-FOMO’d. Would now be an appropriate time to say: FML?
As much as I want to sigh a huge ‘bitch please’ on this, a quantum of my conjoining libido and psyche fight for some relevance in this Blockbuster-buzz. But before I hold out a tiny torch for 50 Shades, let me give you the disclaimer that I am not much of a Blockbuster seeker. Needless to mention, I am an avid runner in the hipster rat-race. While flexing muscles to everything from late night screenings of Criterion Collection to anything involving Helen Mirren’s bare chest, whips and chains do much more than excite me: they nerd me up. In my wayfarer-wearing and PBR-can-handling glory I have, on occasion, managed to one-up my fellow cinephile in the quest to be the first-place winner in the all-that-is racy-and-esoteric championship. And no, there is no actual prize–just more beer.
For the art world, pushing the envelope on controversy has never been a surprise. There are plenty of art festivals to prove it. However for sexually hungry mommies and demure secretaries across the nation, 50 Shades is the biggest sexual favor since Basic Instinct. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder: does this draw a cultural fence between the haves and have-nots of artsy-fartsy kink, or could it reveal to those on the cerebral side (myself included) we’ve developed a–gasp–fetish? Admittedly, through most of my adult life, my standards for just about any kind of stimulation have totally escalated, if not digressed, to a point where I cannot reach pleasure unless certain “needs” are met. I can’t sway to Dirty Dancing. I can’t cry to A Walk To Remember, and I never went to My Best Friend’s…Greek–whatever. All of that lives in Yawn-ville, and I’m zipping past the exit. I need a serious plot-twister: a pagan cult, a thing for daddies, a character with an arrested-development that enables their obsession for…feet. Yes friends, this baby requires spanking.
Recently, I watched Frozen (not voluntarily, but with my friend’s kids) and felt absolutely nothing. Instead, I found myself wondering how difficult it must be for Elsa to get laid with her curse (no wonder she’s so damn frigid). And do you want to know the last time I stood at a box office, oozing with southern-region anticipation? Let’s just say Leonardo DiCaprio and the internet were both new at the time. It’s sad coming to such a realization of not only getting older, but in addition, have become a depraved doctrinaire of lust seething at, of all things, the taste of housewives. But this is not to say standards should be lowered, or that all hope for a good brain orgasm is gone. My point is: try your best not to miss out. Dance “dirty.” Take a “walk to remember.” Enjoy Pixar. Just, while you’re at it, consider watching The Story of O. Whatever it is that is out there: art, music, racy films–both vanilla and kinky flavored–if it can challenge you, or help you understand life on the mortal coil; voila, it did its job.
So in continuation of our 50 Shades Deeper series, here are five totally healthy, hair-pulling, cheek-slapping, films worth your while and psyche.
5. Secretary Steven Shainberg (2002)
If you are looking for an educational and meaningful justification of what brings people to a BDSM relationship, but without the “clunky prose” (what many literary critics deem E.L. James’ 50 Shades as), first read Mary Gaitskill’s short story Secretary (1988) and then watch the 2002 adapted film directed by Steven Shainberg. James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal are dominant/submissive kindred spirits in this coming of age tale about Lee, a shy masochistic woman (Gyllenhall) who takes a job as a secretary for an even more socially awkward lawyer named Edward Grey (Spader)–if you caught that too, yes, even the names are derivative. Both ridden with an overbearing sense of misplacement in the world, gradually overcome their weaknesses as they discover the dark pleasures found in their comedic acts of sadomasochism–and more importantly, the company of one another. Categorized as dark comedy it definitely takes the whole roleplay fantasy of “boss and secretary” to a completely non-porno level. With very little dialogue or hoaky use of whips and chains, an empathetic understanding of the couple’s dynamic is revealed as we watch the two evolve outside of their sexuality, from gauche to temptress and awkward to aware.
4. Elles Malgorzata Szumowska (2011)
Still on the premise of “domestic woman comes of age via sexual encounter” and on the topic of life-altering guerilla journalism, Elles, a 2011 European film by Małgorzata Szumowska, shows the life of Anne (Juliette Binoche), a journalist in Paris for French Elle writing an article about female student prostitution. With a sushi boat variety of sex scenes, the film focuses mostly on Anne’s reevaluation of the life she has lead when realizing that the life of prostitution, presumed to be dreadful and depressing, is actually empowering, creative, and more honest than the pretty-on-the-outside life she has made for herself. Equipped with plenty of borderline illegal action, the film ends open-ended as we are left to decide what is to become of the prostitutes and Anne.
3. Romance X Catherine Breillat (1999)
It is certainly a challenge when having to choose only one of Catherine Breillat’s films for a BDSM list. Known for her signature themes on female sexuality, self-discovery and empowerment is shown in its rawest form in Breillat’s 1999 French art house drama Romance X. Controversial for being one of the few films in existence to have unsimulated sex, a rape scene, and casting porn stars in acting roles, the film goes on a journey with a girl named Marie (Caroline Ducey). When her jaded boyfriend continually refuses to have sex with her, she decides to take matters into her own hands and fulfill all her sexual desires beyond the vanilla-missionary style she’s had most of her adult life. As if pursuing a kinky bucket list, she experiences what young women often fantasize: a handsome man at a bar and a distinguished older man with whom she experiences sadomasochism for the first time.
2. Last Tango in Paris Bernardo Bertolucci (1972)
Resemblant of a raunchier predecessor to the more benignly written Lost in Translation, this is an epic drama about a heart-wrenching, young girl meets older guy, NSA casual-encounter. We immediately fall in love with the richness in dialogue and struck like a bullet with the unsustainability of carnal lust. The demise of this love affair is foreshadowed in the beginning credits, showing two portraits by Francis Bacon–simulating both hanging meat at a butcher shop and skin diseases (swallow that next time you swipe right on Tinder). Taking the term getting “buttered up” literally, nameless sex is plenty had between the two lovers Paul (Marlon Brando), a widower expatriate in Paris, and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) an elusive engaged Parisian woman. As Paul feels jilted by his wife to suicide, and Jeanne is detached from her fiance to his career as a film director, both find common ground and lose themselves in sexual anonymity, dominance and submission. Ending on a tragic unsettling note, the film’s extreme sexual content, most of which was banned in several countries and later re-released on its 35th anniversary, is only a beautiful detail to the portrait, mainly existing as an observation on vulnerability, disillusionment, rage and the ways in which we deal. A really powerful quote Brando says with such gusto to his dead wife’s body is “I may be able to comprehend the universe, but I’ll never understand the truth about you,” taking note on the irony of how how self-discovery is found easily in the encounters of unlikely strangers than with the ones we grow to love–and later lose.
1. The Pillow Book Peter Greenaway (1995)
If you are a total bibliophile (and want to get a full frontal look at Ewan McGregor), Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book centers around a sexual act worth trying at least once. The film is the life story of Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a Japanese woman with a fetish for ritualistic calligraphy to be written all over her body. With all her lovers, she begs them to write whatever they please on her, and yet is still left unsatisfied. She eventually meets Jerome (Ewan McGregor), an English translator who is able to fulfill her needs, but also encourages her to be the calligrapher on men. Nagiko embraces her new talent as a body artist and Jerome’s penmanship improves as they become the perfect lovers for one another both physically and poetically.