Bitter Moon (IMDB) is a 1992 erotic/romance film, directed by the notorious Roman Polanski, based on the novel Lunes de Fiel by Pascal Bruckner
Nigel goes on an ocean cruise with his wife, Fiona, where he becomes fascinated by a beautiful, mysterious woman named Mimi. Her husband, a paraplegic would-be writer named Oscar, demands that Nigel listen to his story of his obsessive love with Mimi before Nigel has an affair with her. Like another tale of twisted love, Nabokov’s Lolita, we shouldn’t take the narrator at face value. Mimi privately tells Nigel: “You musn’t believe all he says. He’s a sick man. He imagines things.”
In Oscar’s story, he is a self-consciously literary archetype, an independently wealthy young American living in Paris to become a writer. On a bus trip, he becomes smitten with Mimi, a young French woman.
Mimi is a cipher, with almost nothing more to her than being a beautiful French dancer, at least in Oscar’s telling. The early stages of their romance go from sweetly romantic to an adolescent’s idea of eroticism.
Oscar: (to Nigel) “I’m only going into such detail to show you how completely enslaved I was, body and soul, by this creature whose dangerous charms have made such an impression on you.”
Criminal Minds S03E13 “Limelight” Aired January 23, 2008 IMDB
Criminal Minds is a police procedural TV series focusing on a FBI unit of criminal profilers. Criminal profiling is a somewhat questionable methodology in reality.
Unlike a lot of other episodes in this type of show, this episode doesn’t begin with the discovery of a dead sex worker. An abandoned storage locker is opened to reveal a collection of bondage magazines, arty porn shots, and detailed journals about capturing and torturing women, complete with diagrams.
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 Abnormal Female (IMDB) is a 1969 exploitation film, a collection of softcore sexual vignettes loosely tied together by the voiceover narration of a psychiatrist and his female patients talking about their sexual experiences and fantasies.
In BDSM terms, the only segment of note is the first, in which a brunette woman known as Vickie, said to be a sadist, describes dominating a man. The film shows her doing just that, wearing a black leather minidress and boots, and carrying a bullwhip. However, she doesn’t actually use it as a whip, and instead uses it to tie a man’s arms behind his back. She rips off his clothes, forces lemon juice into his mouth, rubs pieces of fruit on him and ends with implied 69. It’s not clear in the diegesis if this is actually happened or is something she’s imagined.
This is the only known film work of the director George Rodgers. None of the actors turn up anywhere else (likely pseudonyms). The Abnormal Female came at the end of the softcore sexploitation era, just before the hardcore era of the 1970s.
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.
Not all of the works I plan on exploring in The Celluloid Dungeon will have BDSM as a primary or even secondary theme. Some will have BDSM in a single scene or even a single moment.
Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, a 1989 crime thriller starring Charles Bronson, is not a good film, by most standards. It’s mainly about an older racist cop, Lt. Crowe (Bronson), harassing and brutalizing non-white people in Los Angeles in pursuit of an exploitative pimp, Duke. That story is awkwardly spliced with another story about a Japanese salaryman, Hada, who moves with his wife and two daughters to Los Angeles. Hada’s elder daughter, Fumiko, somewhere in her early teens, is kidnapped, raped multiple times (offscreen, thankfully) and pimped out, before Crowe rescues her.
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.
Once you start to explore the history and deeper ideas of sexuality, you inevitably come across the topic of the fetish, and the particularly gendered origin of the concept. For a long time, it was assumed that women simply did not have fetishes, and that they were a particularly male malady, much like masochism, tied into Freudian ideas of compensation of female castration. When women exhibited behaviour that could be seen as fetishistic, like kleptomania, it was explained away as something else.
More recent, feminist thought about sexuality has suggested that female fetishism does exist, but it hides in plain sight. One of the ideas of female fetishism is attraction to injured or wounded men.
Brown, Carolyn E. “Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure”, English Literary Renaissance, Vol.16, Iss. 1, Dec 1986
Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure (first performed in 1604) links religious asceticism and flagellation with deviant sexuality and political tyranny. The Duke of Vienna, the judge Angelo and the novice nun Isabella claim to be pious and chaste, while their sexuality is repressed in such a way that it emerges as indifferent voyeurism, aggressive sadism or masochism, respectively. “…by drawing parallels to historical or topical events, Shakespeare suggests that the protagonists’ very asceticism, ironically, causes this deviant desire and that they associate their austere religious practices with pleasurable feelings.”
Isabella and Angelo
The plot revolves around a couple, Claudio and Juliet, who have not properly observed all the rules of engagement and marriage. While the Duke travels through Vienna in disguise as a friar, he hands power over to the judge Angelo, who decides to make an example of Claudio and condemn him to death for fornication. Claudio’s friend Lucia asks Isabella, the novice nun and Claudio’s sister, for help. Angelo offers to free Claudio in exchange for sex with Isabella.
The trio of the Duke, Angelo and Isabella are all ascetics (though none are actually clergy), and are hostile to sexual desires, believing that “pain kills the libido and thus subjecting themselves and others to physical abuse.”