Romanceis a 1999 French drama film, written and directed by Catherine Breillat.
[Unless noted otherwise, all quotations are from the subtitles.]
Breillat is notorious for explicitly showing sexual acts in her films, as well as her unsentimental view of heterosexual relations. Sex between men and women is always a conflict in Breillat’s films, though who is winning isn’t always clear.
The protagonist is Marie (Caroline Ducey), a young woman who lives with her boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), a model. In the first scene, Marie watches from a distance as Paul is posed as a matador in a photoshoot with another female model. The photographer instructs Paul and the model in performing proper masculinity and femininity.
They return to their apartment, where their clothes and the furnishings are all white and off-white. Instead of innocence, it suggests sterility and emptiness. Paul rejects Marie’s sexual advances again, in a reversal of the usual gender roles.
Paul’s passive-aggressive head game is that if he completely eliminates sexual desire in himself, he gains the upper hand in his relationship with Marie. Having her dance on the end of his string is more interesting to him than actually fucking her.
Live Nude Girls is a 1995 comedy-drama film, about a group of women who gather for a bachelorette party and mostly talk about sex.
The film starts with women as tween girls having a slumber party in a tent with a poster of David Cassidy, the dawning of their sexuality. In the present, the women mostly talk about their early experiences in the 70s, like reading page 26 of The Godfather, or sneaking peeks at their fathers’ copies of Playboy. Some of these are acted out in fantasy sequences. These women have a complex tangle of desire, vanity, anxiety and shame in their past and present sexual lives.
Secret Diary of a Call Girl (IMDB) is a British dramedy TV series focusing on Belle, also known as Hannah (played by Billie Piper), a young woman experiences in different kinds of sex work.
Episode 4 of series 1 (untitled, premiered 18 October 2007), directed by series creator Lucy Prebble, starts off with Belle having a session with her tax accountant, as he’s also a client. He says, “I don’t want you to be nice to me.” She doesn’t know anything about this, commenting later, “All that pain and paraphernalia, I don’t really get it.”
This request sends Belle to her manager.
Manager: “I was a domme for a while. I tell you, there’s no fucking money in it.”
Belle: “I’m not changing career. I just want to give it a go.”
Manager: “Good. I understand. You do this job long enough, you’ll want to kick the shit out of a man, eventually.”
The manager puts her in touch with “Mistress Sirona” (Sally Dexter).
While it is good that Belle seeks out advice from someone experienced in the field before her session with her accountant, this is where the episode goes over the top. First, “Mistress Sirona” drops by Belle’s flat in full dominatrix outfit. Second, she’s accompanied by her male slave, who strips naked as soon as he enters Belle’s place. Apparently, she’s combining her social call to Belle with a client session.
Sirona: “So why not send your client my way?
Belle: “I’m curious.
Sirona: “Curiosity is a first step to enlightenment.”
Belle: “I thought it killed the cat.”
Sirona: “Belle, I like you. I like anyone with an open mind and clean shoes. Just to be clear, though, I take this job seriously.
Belle: “Of course.
Sirona: “Some people meditate, some people pray.
Sirona: “And fetish is not something for working girls to retire to once their tits have started to sag.
Belle: “My tits are fine.”
Sirona gives Belle her brief introduction to the practice and theory of kink, including impact play and bondage on her slave.
Belle: “What about the sex?”
Sarona: “There is no sex.”
Belle: “None at all? How do you know when you’re finished?”
Sarona: “My watch beeps. I’m a goddess to my slaves. That’s what they want. I wouldn’t stoop to sex with them. Plus I’m a married woman.”
Belle: “He knows?”
Sarona: “Of course. Our sitting room’s a dungeon.”
In her book Dominatrix, Danielle J Lindemann explores the particular role of professional dominatrixes and their relationships to other types of sex workers. She says that pro dommes, their clients, and the mainstream media have jointly cultivated a professional mystique around the female dominant sex worker. The idea is that they are an elite with specialized expertise, who are authentically interested in dominance; not that they’re women, performing a job with varying degrees of skill, dedication and enthusiasm, for clients with money.
Secret Diary buys into this mystique, and doesn’t critique any of it. It even copies the “healing” rationale of pro domme work, as Sirona tells Belle that what she provides is “a huge relief.”
In a montage in the middle of the episode, Belle shops for the clothing, the implements and the furnishings for this new role. She even redecorates her flat with a pair of giant Gothic candelabras. There are obligatory shots of the arrays of bondage and impact gear, and a full-body shot of Belle in her new latex dress, corset and heels. Presumably her accountant is paying for all of this, even though Belle might not keep any of it. This fits with the consumerist ethos of Secret Diary, which links upscale escort work with a luxurious lifestyle. As Barbara Ehrenreich et al. observed in Re-Making Love, sadomasochism is the perfect form of sexuality for a consumerist society.
One of the problems of this episode is that Belle treats the role of dominatrix as something she can acquire in a package, rather than something she has grown into. When she’s in the full outfit, she’s not completely comfortable, which is emphasized by the squeaking of the rubber dress as she moves and her awkwardness on the high heels. This fits one of the series’ themes: Belle trying on different identities at the behest of her clients.
When the accountant shows up, Belle says in an aside to the camera:
“Everything’s worked out in advance. The script, the scenario, even the insults I’m going to use have been agreed with over email.”
While it’s good that this is made clear, wouldn’t showing the negotiation between Belle and the accountant have been interesting? Perhaps, but it would have detracted from the glamorous fantasy.
As the scene progresses, Belle stumbles a few times. First, she doesn’t know how to read her sub’s responses. She has to ask for “Red, amber or green?” “Green,” he says.
Belle (to camera): “How do you know if you’re doing it right? In my job, if you make a man come, that’s success. With this I can’t even tell if he’s enjoying it.”
Her second problem is that she runs out of things to do to him. After a quick call to Sirona for advice, she puts him to work scrubbing her toilet. While this keeps him busy, she makes a few calls.
The B-plot is that Belle has just learned that Ben, the guy friend she has a crush on, is getting married. This puts a rift in their friendship, and Belle responds by pushing him away. Later, when she finally takes one of his calls during her session with the accountant, he points out that she’s always secretive and controlling, and she’s punishing him by avoiding her calls. In other words, sadomasochistic dynamics of control, punishment and suffering can occur in any relationship.
Belle gets angry and starts to take it out on her accountant, vigorously using all of the implements. He red-safewords but she keeps going for a few more strokes until he calls her “Belle.” “I don’t want scars.” (Note, however, that the accountant says he can’t have marks, not that Belle has gone over his physical limits.)
Belle is stunned, sits down, asks Accountant to help her undo her dress. They apologize to each other. Belle recommends Sirona to him.
The episode ends with Belle telling her friend Ben about her sex work.
Belle (voice over): “Sirona was right. Hurting people is a very special talent. S&M has taught me one thing. Maybe absolute control isn’t always best. Maybe sometimes, you’ve got to give a bit away.”
While Secret Diary is fairly positive in its portrayal of BDSM, it’s also pretty shallow; there’s only so much one can cover in 22 minutes. Much like Personal Services, it’s focused on the emotional-commercial transaction between hetero male clients and female providers, and doesn’t explore adjacent areas like non-commercial BDSM or maledom/femsub interactions. Certainly no indication of why a woman would want to be a top/dominant for any reason other than money.
Belle/Hannah was played by Billie Piper, best known as companion Rose Tyler in the revival of Doctor Who. Mistress Sirona was played by Sally Dexter, who also played a dominatrix character in Adult Babies (2017).
The Girls on F Street, also known as The Maidens of Fetish Street, is a 1966 exploitation film (IMDB), directed by Saul Resnick. A lot of the film is padded out with the voiceover sermonizing, and shots of 1960s downtown Los Angeles, including landmarks like the Flight of Angels inclined railway.
Written, produced and directed by Victor Nieuwenhuijs. Starring Anne van de Ven as Wanda, and André Arend van de Noord as Severin. IMDB
(Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from English dub, not the English subtitles.)
Unlike the 1967 Venus in Furs or the 1969 Jesus Franco Venus in Furs, this is pretty close to the original story, though set in the present day. Severin, a young man, falls for a young woman named Wanda. They sign a contract to formalize their dominant-submissive relationship.
Belle De Jour (1967) is a French drama directed by Luis Bunuel and starring Catherine Deneuve.
Note: quotes are from the English dubbing, not the subtitles.
Deneuve plays Séverine (a name probably chosen for its link to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs), the beautiful young wife of a surgeon, Pierre. They seem to have the perfect life, but Séverine is sexually unresponsive, what at the time they would have deemed “frigid.” (“Frigidity” is not a term used any more, at least not clinically.) The only way she can be aroused is by imagining herself in scenarios of degradation and slavery.
The Piano Teacher (2001) is a drama about the relationship between a sexually repressed middle-age woman and an aggressive younger man. This is what happens when an incautious masochist encounters a real sadist.
Payback (IMDB) is a 1999 neo-noir crime thriller, starring Mel Gibson.
In The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo talked about the phase of American movies in which queer film characters existed mainly as dramatic or comedic foils to the straight characters. Whether they were swishy nellies or twisted sadists, they were a simple object lesson in proper and improper gender roles. That extends to the present day, though perhaps a little less overt: heroes are associated with heterosexuality, monogamy, vanilla sex, and other normative sexualities, while villains tend towards bisexuality, non-monogamy, and fetishes and kinks.