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Better than Fifty Shades of Grey

Let’s not mince words: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an abomination in any permutation it might take. It initially appeared in the form of a saucy novel, the first of a trilogy, by E.L. James--correction: FSOG’s true first appearance was as a piece of TWILIGHT fan fiction that debuted on the internet, which together with its follow-ups inexplicably went on to become a monster bestseller, indeed a “publishing phenomenon.” That’s despite the fact that the book is a crudely written and uneventful snooze-fest whose own supporters can’t even muster up much of a defense for it.

     Now a FSOG movie has been released, and done for the film world what the novel did for literature. The film has, of course, been a sizable success thus far, and attracted widespread condemnation from the religious right (it also inspired an evangelical knock-off called OLD FASHIONED, released the same weekend, in which a young woman is turned on to the joys of traditional marriage). It’s not unlike what occurred after the enormous success of TWILIGHT, which for a time became the face of horror cinema (who can forget the cringeable spectacle of Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner introducing a horror movie tribute during the 2010 Oscar telecast?).

     Not having seen the FSOG movie, I can’t comment on its artistic qualities (reading the book was enough for me!). In any event, there’s already more than enough online chatter about the film, nearly all of it negative; the most laudable notice I’ve been able to find was a crack on the imdb calling it “a fun bit of drivel” that promised to “make my wife wet.”

     If there’s anything positive to be taken away from this debacle it’s that the unprecedented success of FSOG might possibly inspire its readers/viewers to seek out other, much better examples of erotic fiction and film. To that end I’ll gladly provide some suggestions of accounts that resemble, and far outdo, FSOG.

     FSOG, for those who don’t know, is a perverse but essentially upbeat romance about a young woman introduced to the joys of spanking, whipping, marbles in her vagina and other such things by a randy gazillionaire. In terms of like-minded narratives, renowned but dark-tinged novels like De Sade’s JUSTINE, Sacher-Masoch’s VENUS IN FURS and Bataille’s STORY OF THE EYE are out, as are films like THE BLIND BEAST and IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES. No, what we’re after here are works that present the S&M/B&D lifestyle in a manner similar to that of FSOG: in positive, life-affirming terms.

     Foremost in this respect is perhaps the most iconic example of bondage lit: 1954’s STORY OF O by Pauline Reage (actually Anne Declos). It’s the dreamlike account of a young woman, known only as “O,” whose lover Rene takes her to a chateau where she’s trained in the art of submission. This naturally involves being chained up, whipped, blindfolded, pierced and branded. Rene eventually takes O back to civilization, where she passes into the care of Rene’s stepbrother Sir Stephen, who subjects her to further sadistic outrages.
     The novel is a bit dated, particularly in its oddly chaste language. Its continued relevance, however, is evident in the fact that it remains a source of outrage and notoriety among feminists and bible-thumpers alike, who object to its portrayal of a woman subjected to all manner of sadism--despite the fact that, as is made clear on several occasions, O is fully consensual in and actually quite enjoys the abuse.

     Next up is THE IMAGE by Jean de Berg (actually Catherine Robbe-Grillet), a short novel that appeared in Paris two years after STORY OF O. It is, in a word, mind-blowing, with a stunningly perverse narrative that begins with a chance meeting at a party and climaxes with an amazingly elaborate torture session in the aptly named “Gothic Chamber.” The descriptions are even more graphic than those of STORY OF O, with THE IMAGE often reading like a re-write of Reage’s classic, told from the point of view of the torturers.
     The “victim” here is a sweet young thing who hangs around an icy woman who tortures her in a variety of sadistic ways. The first person protagonist is initially repelled by this S&M dynamic but grows increasingly intrigued, and even comes to partake in the sadism. A triumph of simplicity and unflinching perversity, THE IMAGE is a startling, fascinating and genuinely erotic work that’s also quite unexpectedly romantic.

     NINE AND A HALF WEEKS by Elizabeth McNeil was initially published in 1978, and remains perhaps the closest thing we have to a modern-day STORY OF O. It’s an allegedly fact-based account by the pseudonymous “Elizabeth McNeil,” a.k.a. Ingeborg Day, which was of course adapted into a bad 1980s movie whose makers toned down the material considerably.
     The first person heroine is a New Yorker drawn into a torrid affair with an elegant sadist who (like FSOG’s seducer) evidently possesses unlimited wealth and an excess of free time. Over a period of three months she becomes his slave, going about her business during the day while allowing him to completely dominate her at night.
     The book is renowned for its simplicity, which is indeed one of its virtues: in direct opposition to most fuck books (and the movie version of this novel), McNeil/Day doesn’t draw out or linger excessively on the erotic content, which has the effect of rendering it that much more arousing. The drawback to this no-frills approach is a near-complete lack of exposition. We never learn much about the narrator, with her employment and background left frustratingly vague (for the record, the author was a German immigrant, and an editor at Ms. Magazine--see the New Yorker article “Who Was the Real Woman Behind Nine and Half Weeks?” for a full accounting).

     MY DARLING DOMINATRIX by Grant Andrews is not unlike an Americanized variant on MAITRESSE (see below), a frank and unflinching depiction of a naïve young man’s rocky romance with a dominatrix. Making this relationship work out involves a fair amount of adjustment on the parts of both participants, which has inspired complaints by real S&M enthusiasts, who find the title character too submissive. I disagree with that charge, although I do feel the novel is a bit uneven overall, with a mid-book vigilante subplot that does nothing but distract from the freaky relationship at the novel’s center.
     I will, however, say this for MY DARLING DOMINATRIX: it’s compulsively readable in a manner that makes its 500-plus page length fly by very quickly. It also feels extremely true to life; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the story is at least partly autobiographical a la NINE AND A HALF WEEKS.

     Here I’ll switch gears to explore some noteworthy FSOG-esque films. I’ll start with the French import MAITRESSE (1976), written and directed by Barbet Schroeder (BARFLY) and starring Gerard Depardieu, back when both were at the top of their respective games. Depardieu plays a petty thief who crosses paths with a dominatrix, played by the alluring Bulle Ogier. He’s repelled at first, but finds himself inexorably drawn to her weird world of chains, whips, cages, penises nailed to boards, etc. This is a fun film if you’re in the right mood, notable for presenting its bizarre sexual underworld in a strangely joyous and liberating manner--but again, only if you’re in the right mood.

     SEDUCTION: THE CRUEL WOMAN (VERFUHRUNG: DIE GRAUSAME FRAU; 1985) is a heavily stylized German film about Wanda, a seductive dominatrix, and her eccentric clientele. Udo Kier plays a dude Wanda tortures unmercifully after he makes the mistake of falling in love with her. There’s also a lady who works in a shoe store to satisfy her high heel fetish and a meek American babe who with Wanda’s help uncovers her inner sadist.
     The film, co-directed by lesbian icon Monica Truet (MY FATHER IS COMING), deserves credit for taking these people and their obsessions seriously, never lapsing into camp (despite the John Waters-worthy content). If anything, it may be a bit too heavy-handed in its approach, although it has some mighty striking imagery, most notably a surreal bit where Kier views the American gal in action through a flaming doorway.

     MOONLIGHT WHISPERS (SASAYAKI; 1999), based on a popular manga, explores S&M from a Japanese perspective. As with many of the other works outlined here, it’s quite simple in conception, with a teenage nerd (Kenji Mizuhashi) initiating a tentative romance with a cute girl (Tsugumi), which ends when she discovers that he likes to collect illicit photos and audio recordings of her. Yet he continues to pursue her, and she comes to perversely encourage his pathetic affections. Thus their relationship gradually comes into its own as a yin-and-yang dynamic between a sadist (her) and a masochist (he).
     A fitfully nutty film, solidly directed by Akihiko Shiota. It may be a bit overly repetitive in the way it continually recycles the same pain/pleasure dynamic, with goings-on--which include a full body tongue bath and imprisonment inside a tiny closet--that aren’t nearly as shocking as you might expect.

     The same cannot be said for the outrageous South Korean import LIES (GOJITMAL; 2000). Extremely graphic in its approach, it involves a middle-aged man immersed in a lascivious fuck-a-thon with a teenager. Their affair goes from straight sex (albeit with an unnatural emphasis on asshole licking) to B&D quite rapidly, until inevitably these two quit their jobs and lives altogether, simply drifting from hotel to hotel, ecstatically pounding the shit out of each other.
     Clearly inspired by Nagisa Oshima’s classic IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, LIES shares a number of that film’s flaws: much repetitive action and an overlong running time. It deserves credit for its audacity, however; after MAITRESSE it’s the most sexually explicit film on this listing, presenting the unglamorous realities of sadomasochism in a frank and unflinching manner while still managing to impart a genuine sense of love and devotion.

     SECRETARY (2002) is an American-made effort that rather brutally inverts the modern romantic comedy trope. It concerns a severely mousy secretary with a penchant for self-mutilation, nicely played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She works for a lawyer (James Spader, essentially reprising his role from CRASH) with his own aberrant urges. It follows the standard meet-cute/get together/temporary break-up/happy ending rom-com formula, but director Steven Shainberg’s real concern is with his protagonists’ twisted natures, and how these two learn to accept rather than suppress those natures. There’s much full frontal nudity by Ms. Gyllenhaal, in a film that, unlike most everything else on this list, is far from pornographic but quite startling nonetheless.

     Needless to add, the above are intended for ADULTS ONLY, and nor are they recommended for the faint-hearted. Yet, given the enormous success of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY in both fictional and filmic form, it’s clear that the potential audience for this sort of fare is vast, and, I feel, will be far better served by the likes of STORY OF O, MAITRESSE or SECRETARY.

--2/21/15 

     

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