Exit to Eden (IMDB) is a 1994 romance/comedy/thriller movie, based on the sadomasochistic novel by Anne Rice.
Exit was the first feature film released based on an Anne Rice novel, mainly because Interview with the Vampire was tied up in development hell for a long time. I suspect this was a case of the author selling the film rights on the assumption that it would never actually get made into a film. Rice wrote and published Exit to Eden between the second and third books in her original Sleeping Beauty trilogy, and it’s full of hardcore sex, hetero and otherwise.
Even more bizarre, the film was directed by Garry Marshall, a guy with a long background in American sitcoms. Why would the guy who created Happy Days direct a movie about BDSM? The Bad Gay Movies podcast suggest it was because of the commercial success of Marshall’s film Pretty Woman (1990), which managed to be a sweet rom-com about LA street prostitution.
Marshall had his work cut out for him. Exit is about Elliot, a war photographer, who travels to the Club, an elite BDSM club on a tropical island, on a quest for self-knowledge. There he meets and falls for Lisa, the head trainer.
Somebody decided middle America in 1994 wasn’t ready for a romance movie with hardcore BDSM. The film works hard (too hard, in my opinion) to reign in the sex. We do get a tropical sex resort setting, but every thing is very straight. (The closest thing to queer action is Lisa and her aide, Diana, frolicking nude in a pool.) There are only a few glimpses of full female nudity and none of male frontal nudity. Instead of the threatening aesthetic of black leather and chains, everybody wears gold colored outfits. And while many of the white-clad trainers are shown holding floggers, we never see them actually used on anybody. The most physically extreme play in the entire film is a light spanking with a hairbrush. In trying to get an R-rating, the film overshot and ended up PG-13 with some bare breasts.
In the book, Elliot is a combat photojournalist who is somewhat traumatized after seeing too much violence. The movie’s version, played by Paul Mercurio, is all boyish charm without a hint of darkness. His entire character arc is that he wants to be dominated and spanked by a woman, but can’t admit it, and Lisa helps him get over that.
Lisa: “It’s all right, Elliot. You can say it. You can like it. You’re allowed here. Do you like it?”
This is the same “dominatrix as therapist” trope we’ve seen many times before. In fact, Eden seems to operate more as a sex therapy retreat than a hedonistic community.
As Lisa, Dana Delany is the one actor in this movie who walks away with her dignity intact. There are scenes of her grieving her recently-deceased mother, talking with her father, and talk about her sexual history and flashbacks of her initiation into the world of BDSM. They appear to be remnants of a much more serious draft of this film.
Lisa: “I didn’t know such a world existed.”
Dr. Halifax: “It’s a world in which you have all the choices.”
Lisa: “Can I choose to be master?”
Dr. Halifax takes off her cuffs.
Dr. Halifax: “The best submissives usually become the best masters. You’re a victim in life. I will teach you to always be in total control. You will never be a victim again, ever.”
Lisa: “I liked being in control. It felt safe.”
Sheila: “But isn’t there a happy medium? Like I tie you up on night, you tie me up the next night?”
Lisa: “Of course, it would be nice not to be in control and still feel safe.”
Sheila: “Have you ever?”
Lisa changes the subject.
The film grafts on a cheesy, “find the macguffin” plot about a couple of diamond smugglers and a couple of undercover cops searching for Elliot because he unknowingly took a picture of a wanted criminal. This provides a lot of “fish out of water” comedy from Dan Ackroyd (plus jokes about the size of his dick) and Rosie O’Donnell as the cops, Fred and Sheila. Fred is a prude who becomes a maintenance worker and Sheila deflects everything with humor, and travels to the island as a guest. O’Donnell also provides the voice-over narration, another sign of post-production covering up flaws. Supermodel Iman plays the smuggler’s henchwoman Nina, who is the only one who takes full advantage of the island and walks around with two buff men following her.
Four people on the island and they can’t find one guy? This pads out the film to nearly two hours and makes the pace drag.
The cops’n’robbers plot barely interacts with the main plotline of Elliot and Lisa. Even when Sheila finally does meet Elliot, instead of telling him a couple of killers are looking for him, she lets him participate in a roller-blade race (it was the 90s) to get Lisa’s attention. This is when the killers spot Elliot and put him in danger.
Lisa tries to expel Elliot because of her fear of intimacy, but Elliot gets her to go with him to New Orleans, where they have a romantic, if vanilla, time. The smugglers show up and resolve that plot line.
At the police station, Lisa overhears women talking about their abusive relationship with the men in her life.
Lisa: “You saw those women at the station? […] You know what they all had in common? They all gave up control.”
She goes back to Eden without Elliot. There’s a glint of a much more thoughtful story here, about Lisa’s need for control trumping her need for intimacy.
Elliot also goes back to the island and proposes marriage to Lisa.
Lisa: “You mean, like, leave here, meet your parents, buy a condo, holidays? You want me to cook?”
Elliot: “No, our marriage, love, family, fantasy, erotic, whatever we decide.”
Lisa: “Babies and bondage, I could do both?”
Elliot: “Yeah. I’d love to say, my wife is a dominatrix.”
Lisa: “I can just see myself at the kids’ school on career day.”
While I realize there’s only so much you could get away with in a R-rated American film in 1994, Exit went too far in making BDSM palatable to a mainstream, straight audience. “Thrill” lies in between “fear” and “boredom”, and Exit erred on the side of boredom.
On the other hand, there’s a place in the world for training wheels. As deeply flawed as Exit to Eden is, it was a pro-BDSM film, right in the middle of the erotic thriller boom of the 90s, in which sexual deviance was inextricably linked to death and loss. This film presented the idea that BDSM was perfectly compatible with love, intimacy, and long-term relationships, and introduced concepts of consent and safewords.
Dana Delany also appeared in a spanking scene in Live Nude Girls (1995).