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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.