The day "Exit to Eden" premiered, I started to get calls and e-mails from my friends and students asking me what I thought of it. So I thought I'd spend this issue telling you about this movie as well as a few other mainstream films that have taken a loo k (often a misguided one, sadly) at "our" world.
I spent several days this week cocooned in front of the TV, screening videos of American and European films that portray S/M play (the things I do for you guys!).
It seems as though filmmakers doggedly maintain certain perceptions, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, about the women and men who do S/M. I looked in vain (with one exception, which I'll mention later) for a good film about a non-professional female dominant. It also seems as though most films concerning S/M follow one of two basic plotlines: either someone starts out doing S/M in a loving and consensual context and finds themselves spiraling out of control, playing more and more dangerously and less and less consensually -- or someone does S/M and is destroyed by the condemnation of the people around him or her.
Admittedly, happy successful people make for boring movies. But surely there must be other plot lines than these!
Each of the movies I've watched on this topic has had its strengths as well as its weaknesses. But I don't think anybody has yet made the S/M movie (any producers reading this?).
Most of you have probably already gone to see "Exit to Eden," Garry Marshall's adaptation of the soft-porn romance penned by Anne Rice under the pseudonym Anne Rampling.
"Exit" is a cleaned-up, absurdly prettified version of what S/M people actually do... yet I was impressed with its efforts to communicate important messages about safety and negotiation, and with its refusal to milk cheap laughs from the kinky desires of its protagonists. (It's the vanilla folks in this film that are the figures of fun -- what a pleasant change.) If nothing else, its efforts to communicate such basic concepts as safewords to middle America are highly laudable.
The bad news is that nobody who had anything to do with the making of this film understood much about what tops or bottoms are really like. The moment that actually made me cringe was when the divinely sexy Hector Elizondo, as Martin, tells budding dominant Lisa that "from now on, you'll always be in control, and you'll never be scared again." Hah! Any top who really understands the risks of what s/he is doing is always a little scared, and always aware of how precarious the illusion of control actually is -- otherwise they're probably not playing safely.
I also thought it was interesting that Elliott, the male protagonist, was portrayed as someone who wasn't even sure whether he wanted to bottom. In the book, Elliott was an avid submissive and, especially, masochist. Did someone feel that mainstream audiences wouldn't "buy" a male protagonist who was sexually submissive? 'Fraid so.
Yet Rosie O'Donnell's portrayal of a nervous but game woman exploring S/M play was right on (she could be one of my workshop attendees). And the man assigned to serve her during her time on Eden was such a caricature of the classic "pushy bottom" that he had all my pervert friends roaring with hilarious recognition.
We got to see very little "real" S/M in this film, although the spanking scene with Lisa and Elliott had that marvelous sense of dropping boundaries and self-discovery that marks the best S/M scenes.
All in all, this film did S/M far more good than it did harm. I just wish it had been a better movie.
I also screened "Bitter Moon," heralded as Roman Polanski's S/M film -- and a more twisted, stomach-churning exercise I've seldom seen.
This film tells the story of a couple (Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner) who started with a passionate love affair and then began exploring S/M and role-playing. But then, reminisces the male half (played by Peter Coyote), "Our credit was running out; we were headed for sexual bankruptcy." Bored and jaded with S/M, they begin playing hateful and destructive games of emotional sadism and masochism, and wind up destroying one another, pulling a dissatisfied young vanilla couple into their web en route. Oh, please.
We get to see one actual scene (Coyote bound, gagged and getting his clothes cut off with a straight razor -- yum!), plus some fairly hot snippets of Seigner in fetish gear. But the message of this movie -- that S/M folks act out of self-hatred and must thus eventually self-destruct -- is contrary to the realities of the scene as I know it, and totally unacceptable.
The German film "Woman In Flames" portrays a woman of 30 or so who walks out of a stultifying marriage and into a career as a prostitute -- and, later, as a professional dominant. She falls in love with a young gigolo who grows more conservative and judgmental about her work as she grows more successful and comfortable with it, and winds up taking revenge on her.
All-in-all, this one's not bad. I liked the fact that the dominatrix was highly intuitive, indeed almost psychic -- which is a characteristic of the best dominants I know. (Her debut as a pro-domme takes place when she impulsively orders a man to his knees and puts lipstick on him -- and he orgasms at the feel of the makeup on his mouth.) Her exploration of female-top play was also convincing and seemed responsible, although there is unfortunately no discussion of negotiation or safe words. I don't know very many pro-dommes who would be able to ply their trade in such a scantily furnished dungeon, though.
And the best news is that in spite of all the world's efforts to dissuade her from doing her work, we last see her laughing, untouched, with a girlfriend.
Another entry from the European arena is the interesting French film "Maitresse" ("Mistress"). In this film, the sullenly sexy Gerard Depardieu plays Olivier, a hoodlum who breaks into the apartment of pro-domme Marianne (Bulle Ogier) and from there forms a relationship with her.
This is the only film I saw that seems to contain real (e.g., unfaked) S/M. Although it looked as though there might have been a stand-in for Ogier during a couple of the scenes that required technical expertise on the part of the top, the bottoms were w ithout question real bottoms -- and some of the play was truly breathtaking.
I felt that this film had a better understanding than most of the genuine stresses and rewards of topping. When Olivier suggests that Marianne is "really" subservient to her clients' demands, she emphatically denies it, saying, "It's wonderful to be abl e to enter people's madness in such an intimate way." She draws a parallel between her work and that of a film director -- which I thought was an excellent metaphor.
The anxiety attack Marianne suffers during one scene where she's topping three men at once also struck me as a realistic depiction of the scariness of biting off more than one can chew. And the fact that she seeks submissive sex with Olivier in order to keep her energy up for dominant sex in the dungeon is typical of the pattern I see among many pro-dommes.
All-in-all, a better film than most. Still, I felt an undercurrent of disapproval of S/M people and our doings.
The marvelous British film "Personal Services" emphasizes that it is not based on the life story of notorious British madame Cynthia Payne. Well, perhaps.
We meet our heroine, played by the warm and expressive Julie Walters, as she is supplementing her waitress's wages by subletting flats to streetwalkers. In order to get their rent paid on time, she begins managing their businesses for them, and before lo ng is drawn -- in a hilarious sequence of misunderstandings -- into doing sex work herself. (Do you know what a "papadopoulos" is? You should.)
Taken under the wing of an experienced pro-domme, she begins exploring fantasy play with a wonderful series of gentlemen. (The film portrays the scenes she plays with them with humor but no mean-spiritedness at all.) Before long, she has created her own house of kink, specializing in the needs of elderly and disabled gentlemen. I recommend the Christmas party scene as the most loving depiction ever of the kind of mutual support we perverts can offer one another.
Of course, those in authority cannot bear this kind of freedom. The denouement, in which the madame has her day in court, is one of the great surprise endings of all time.
This is still the S/M film I recommend most often. While it doesn't include heavy real-world play of the kind portrayed in "Maitresse," it seems to be the only movie out there that recognizes that S/M can be an act of nurturing and love. Except...
A couple of years ago we were treated to a movie that showed an S/M couple who play together with love, passion and mutual support. Later, we met them again in a second film. Their name was "Addams."
I hugely enjoyed both "Addams Family" movies -- not just for their ghoulish humor, but for the subversive joy of seeing S/M play treated as one more way in which a couple can love one another.
There is little doubt that what happens behind closed doors chez Addams would fit right into the pages of this newsletter. (We hear more often of Morticia being the recipient of Gomez' attentions, but the pleasure is quite clearly mutual -- these two are definitely switches.) And if we didn't already know it, the expression of serenely sexual joy on Morticia's face as she's being stretched on the rack in Part One would tell us all. (And let us all bow our heads for a moment in memory of Raul Julia, whom I'd have called "cara mia" anytime.)
Of course, one could wish that we could see an S/M couple whose idea of relaxation is something besides a stroll in the cemetery. Still, humor is the sneakiest way I know of to get a point across. So if these movies are what it takes to convey the loving passion possible in S/M to a mainstream audience... maybe we should all make a call on "The Addams Family."
(prev.: "Notes of a Feminist Sadomasochist")