We have come (and come, and come again) a long way from the heady days of Hedy Lamarr’s naked frolics in the 1930s film Ecstasy. The Hays Code in Hollywood’s golden era stipulated that even married couples couldn’t share a bed, kisses were chaste, one foot remained on the ground at all times, and no doubt that a finely turned ankle was tantamount to rampant promiscuity. Thankfully, when social realism appeared with the Pill in the mid-sixties, a more relaxed attitude prevailed.
We’ve witnessed Ken Russell; Michael Winner, Peter Greenaway and more recently, Lars von Trier bait the censors with challenging work which not only defied conventions, but depicted sexual acts that may have been unthinkable, but for the Soho dirty mac brigade thirty years ago.
While the jury’s still out on the merits of this, plus the availability of free pornography (particularly in its more hardcore forms) something really odd has happened. Erotic films are almost (whisper it) respectable now. Get this- some of them don’t even feature any sex. As the new trend in horror cinema tends towards atmospheric work by the likes of Guillermo del Torro, rather than gross-out as an antidote to the spate of ‘torture porn’ like the Saw series, so too erotic films are becoming beautiful, with actual narratives, love and tenderness. It’s not who can stick what into which hole- there’s hardly even any flesh. Just a mere suggestion of something going on under a sheet, or a leather implement here and there.
Witness the success of Steven Shainberg’s 2002 hit Secretary. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Lee, an out-patient from a psychiatric ward, becomes a strong woman by adopting a submissive role to her boss Mr Grey (no, not that one) who finds that typing mistakes are punishable. What makes it stick (as it were) is that these are two oddball characters, well-matched and completely besotted. No-one is a blushing virgin getting a kicking, just a spanking from the oddly sexy James Spader, and on her own terms too-talk about job satisfaction.
Another example of this is the simmering passion implicit in Wong Kar-Wai’s majestic In the Mood for Love (2000) which features Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s beautiful, lusty couple whose ambiguity intrigues. It begs the question: are they role-playing, or having an affair? Both?
The audience is always being toyed with, and it’s this uncertainty that teases like the first flirtations of romance. That moment of finding recognition and connection within another is a precious, desirable thing. The immaculate interiors, exchanged glances and clandestine feel overall is what makes the chaste film so utterly ravishing. It’s all about restraint, things unspoken.
But there’s restraint of a very different kind in Peter Strickland’s slow-burning 2014 film The Duke Of Burgundy. A very bucolic arthouse film with a hazy, detached tone, a la Picnic at Hanging Rock it exists in a strange, otherwordly place where it’s always summer, and there’s no men around. Within a seemingly unwritten contract, two women play out BDSM roles. Virginal Evelyn is punished for failing to wash her partner’s knickers properly. The camera languidly lingers over submissive Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and her older lover , dominant Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). This sounds a bit male gaze-y, but it eschews this by being kind of classy. There is a boot fetish, butterflies, a gorgeous Cat’s Eyes soundtrack and beautiful undies. Things go kaleidoscopic when the women finally fuck… nothing is seen.
Most fascinating of all, there’s a twist- the sly humour when Cynthia tires of being a dominatrix is very funny. She just wants to wear pyjamas, corsets are so uncomfortable. It’s almost making the same point porn star and activist Annie Sprinkle made with her Anatomy of A Pin-up– this shit is painful to wear.Soon, the fetishistic roles overlap, with Evelyn admonishing Cynthia for a lack of surprises in their domestic routine.It’s not exactly hardcore-I still wouldn’t show it to your maiden aunt, though.
Ending, as I often do, on a surreal- er… tip (honestly, it’s impossible not to go a bit Sid James when writing about sex in cinema- haaarrgghh, haaarrgghh) we must turn to the master of oddball puppet shit and blackly comedic invention, Jan Svankmajer. Who better?
This Czech genius of film has often tackled and tickled taboos, but never more effectively as with the frankly insane Conspirators of Pleasure (1997) which looked at the bizarre fetish of tactility- a kinky form of onanism based on the textures and feelings of implements. These take many forms- from fur to fish; and a unique masturbation machine .All the characters are united in seeming to be ordinary to the point of banality, but hiding strange, surreptitious erotic passions.
Mousey postal worker Mrs Malkova (Barbora Hrzanova) likes rolling dough and sticking it up her nose; an odd little man Mr Peony (Petr Meissel) is obsessed with his neighbour, to the point of making a chicken effigy, and a news reader, Mrs Beltinska (Anna Wetlinska) likes carp nibbling her feet under the desk. As you do. All the extremes to which these people go to fund and facilitate their predilections is hilarious, baffling and just plain warped, but we all have our little foibles.
What’s the safe word again… Pinastri? PINASTRI!