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Fifty Shades of Sheer Class: BDSM In Eurosleaze Cinema
A gateway into more esoteric and rewarding material concerning BDSM in film.
Published on February 18, 2015 | Filed under editorial
Fifty Shades of Grey

Based on current trends/updates in social media, major media and just about any facet of popular culture or mass commerce that you can come across, you’d assume that BDSM was brand new. Or that, at the very least, its appearance in cinema or popular art was finally happening. We all know that the former isn’t true at all, people have been submitting and dominating each other with glee since, well, ever. And, believe it or not, but the latter isn’t true either. BDSM has been a factor of moving images for years in various incarnations and across numerous countries, genres and modes of production. From stag films to animation, to genre cinema oddities and mainstream erotic thrillers, it has permeated popular cinema more than audiences may care to admit. And it’s here again. Fifty Shades of Grey has arrived and it isn’t going anywhere regardless of quality, ethical conundrums or targeted demographic. And neither is what came before it. So let’s focus on that for a while.

As big a fan of titles like Cruising, Secretary or, the very recently released, The Duke of Burgundy that I may be, I really want to focus on one major and defining area of BDSM’s acceptance into popular cinema: Eurosleaze. The term gets thrown around a lot and not always correctly, but for the purposes of this piece we are looking at films from Europe (duh) that are categorized in various sub-genres of exploitation and predominantly focus on, or function as, sexual content. This isn’t a comprehensive list at all, but is meant to be a gateway of sorts into more esoteric and rewarding material concerning BDSM. Nothing here would be classified as pornography (at least not as far as I’m concerned), so don’t be afraid to add these to your Netflix queue or ask your local public library to pick them up (or maybe don’t do that). I’m also only including titles that are readily available on home video and will link to the best versions at the end of each description. Here goes:

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga 

1973. Dir. Corrado Farina

Farina’s dreamy, near comic book like tale of witchery, photography, and bondage is like Blow-Up by way of Marquis DeSade. Sharing pop-art sensibility with avant-garde/art-house filmmaking, he tells a tale that involves a fashion photographer, a horny witch and a doll that wears S&M gear. It’s an impressively restrained and mature work that isn’t quite as sleazy as some of the other titles on this list but offers enough kicks in its 91 minutes to warrant placement. It was also released under the title Kiss Me, Kill Me which is far more provocative than what it is most commonly known as. Available on blu-ray from Blue Underground.

Exposed

Exposed

1971. Dir. Gustav Wiklund

Cristina Lindberg may be most immediately known to viewers from They Call Her One Eye, but before that film was released she starred in Exposed, a rather rough piece of sexploitation out of Germany. The film functions almost as an homage to Belle De Jour, with Lindberg’s character imagining all sorts of sexual things, mostly violently sexual things, happening to her with mixed results. There’s a fair amount of BDSM content, of the consensual sort, and it’s all rather well done. This isn’t a great piece of cinema by any stretch, but it makes an interesting companion to Bunuel’s vastly superior film and features a solid, daring performance from Lindberg too. Available on DVD from Synapse.

Justine de Sade

Justine de Sade

1972. Dir. Claude Pierson

I just had to get some actual De Sade material on here and this one is a bit (ok, maybe a lot) better than Jess Franco’s version of The Marquis’ most well known work. Pierson’s film is pretty rough, as it should be, but never feels excessive for the sake of being excessive. It’s at least a film that doesn’t sanitize the source material (unlike Quills) and it’s more competently made than Franco’s Justine. The film is structure much like the novel with our titular star being passed around from one man to the next with various sexual appetites met and a variety of kinks on display. It can be exhausting to witness, even at only 100 minutes, with softcore star Alice Arno playing Justine with seemingly reckless abandon. Not the easiest film on this list to sit through but likely the best adaptation of anything related to De Sade. Available on DVD from Blue Underground

Maitresse

Maitresse

1975. Dir. Barbet Schroeder

Schroeder’s film is at once the funniest and sweetest film listed here. A love story, of sorts, between a thief and a dominatrix, Maitresse isn’t as heavy on the exploitation as it is on the emotional, often very raw, elements of a BDSM relationship. Featuring plenty of sexual content, it never gets too explicit, it managed an X rating in the US, but it is surprisingly transgressive nonetheless. Calling to mind Belle De Jour, it exists in a strange art-house-porn realm that stopped existing after the 1970s, even if people really tried to bring it back. Schroeder’s film is legitimately funny, making it a much easier watch that other titles which offer no relief at all. Available on DVD from Criterion.

Salon Kitty

Salon Kitty

1976. Dir. Tinto Brass

In the 70s, in Europe, bondage seemed to go hand-in-hand with Nazisploitation. There are fairly revered films that fall into this category – The Night Porter and The Damned predominantly, and some that are as trashy as you can get, anything under the Ilsa banner, for starters. Yet few balance reverence and trash as well as Tinto Brass’s brothel flick. Taking its title from the name of a brothel set up by The SS and run by Madame Kitty, Brass’s film is as exploitative as it is well produced. Maintaining a strong attention to period detail while also emphasizing the skin and various sexual aberrations on display, Salon Kitty is an exemplary film of its genre and can get as hot as it can disgusting. Available on Blu-ray from Blue Underground.

Successive Slidings of Pleasure

Successive Slidings of Pleasure 

1974. Dir. Alain Robbe-Grillet

Trying to decide which Robbe-Grillet film to use for this list was no easy task. His work runs the gamut of fetish with BDSM being present in nearly everything he has made. For my money though, Successive Slidings of Pleasure isn’t only his best film but his most provocative as well. Featuring at its center a dom/sub relationship between characters known only as The Prisoner and Nora, Robbe-Grillet’s film is as much a study of a relationship as it is everything else going on around it: including the murder of a girl found tied to bedposts with her heart impaled by scissors. The imagery here is far more avant-garde than excess, bordering on being quite beautiful, yet it never shies away from its perversions or eccentricities. Available on Blu-ray from Kino.

Succubus

Succubus

1968. Dir. Jess Franco

What’s a BDSM list without Jess Franco? Succubus is one of Franco’s more revered and more experimental films and is also very outwardly kinky. Notable for being the earliest film released on this list (same year as the equally boundary pushing The Libertine), Franco’s film isn’t as S&M heavy as some of the titles above but it is pretty groundbreaking in its, rather explicit, portrayal of sexual taboos at the time. Not always coherent, it plays out like a hypnotic, very 60s, night club act that the viewer shouldn’t be witnessing. Almost along the lines of the theatrical shows in Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but with more weird shit and lots and lots of nudity. Available on DVD from Blue Underground.

Justin holds degrees in film preservation from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and film studies from Keene State College. He writes the Geek Weird column for Geek New Wave and is currently writing a book on XXX parody films. He is a projectionist at Jacob Burns Film Center and regularly haunts NYC movie houses showing any type of genre/trash cinema.
Justin LaLiberty

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