Back to IndieWire

11 Kinky BDSM Films To Get You Tied Up For ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’

11 Kinky BDSM Films To Get You Tied Up For 'Fifty Shades Of Grey'

So far, 2015’s been all about “American Sniper,” but expect the conversation to shift from the complications of war to, ahem, complicated varieties of love in the next few days, as we inch closer to the release of “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s hotly-anticipated adaptation of the biggest literary phenomenon (that description is applied generously) of the last few years.

If you’ve only just emerged from an asphyxi-wank induced coma, E.L. James’ book details the relationship between virginal naif Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson in the film) and pervy-but-handsome billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who introduces her to the eye-opening world of bondage, submissive/dominant relationships and much more.

However, it’s far from the first film break out the handcuffs, so we’ve decided to delve into cinema history to look at eleven movies that have focused on kink and BDSM. Take a look below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments. 

"Last Tango In Paris" (1972)
Once filmmakers were free to portray sexuality more openly from the 1960s onwards, it took a little while for kink to appear in cinemas frequented by audiences other than the raincoat crowd, though films like Mario Bava‘s "The Whip & The Body" and Luis Bunuel‘s "Belle De Jour" included some elements as such. But it was Bernardo Bertolucci‘s "Last Tango In Paris," a film that in its time was talked about easily as much as "Fifty Shades Of Grey" and which had a seismic impact on mainstream culture, that truly brought BDSM culture to the big screen. Basd on the Italian director’s own sexual fantasies, it focuses on the tumultous union between American widower Paul (Marlon Brando) and young Parisian Jeanne (Maria Schneider), in a deliberately anonymous sexual relationship with few limits in an empty apartment. The film became most famous for the scene in which Paul sodomizes Jeanne with a stick of butter, but it’s Bertolucci’s investigation of a relationship driven by degradation that feels groundbreaking now: Paul iss wallowing in grief after the suicide of his wife, and inflicts his pain on Jeanne, and yet somehow she can’t keep away. The film was banned in some countries, edited severely in others, a U.S. theater showing the film was threatened with bombing, and Bertolucci was convincted of obscenity charges in Italy, but it was also critically lauded, and received Oscar nominations for Best Director and Actor. The film’s raw pain lingers over forty years on.

“The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant” (1972)
Some of the films listed here are obvious precursors to “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” but “The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant” obviously shares DNA with the recently released “The Duke Of Burgundy” (which is discussed down the list). Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and based on his own heavily autobiographical play (a veiled version of the triangular relationship between the director, his lover Günther Kaufmann and his assistant/composer Peer Raben), ‘Bitter Tears’ follows the titular fashion designer (Margit Cartensen) as she falls deeply in love with the beautiful Karin (Hanna Schygulla) while tormenting her devoted assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann). A unashamedly melodramatic nod to Fassbinder’s beloved Douglas Sirk and "All About Eve" (that film’s director Joseph Mankiewicz gets a name check at one point), the film doesn’t have that much in the way of whips and chains but is more effective than most at depicting the raw, brutal power dynamics of a sub/dom relationship, thanks in part to claustrophobic staging from the director and future Scorsese DP Michael Ballhaus. Not to mention Cartensen’s fearless turn and Hermann show-stealing, virtually silent performance.

“The Night Porter” (1974)
If the amount of controversy a BDSM movie attracts after release is a litmus test determining how transgressive it is, Liliana Cavani’s 1974 psychosexual fascist noir drama “The Night Porter” passes without a hitch but with plenty of bruises. The first in a trilogy looking back into a contentious German past so as to better understand its human effects on the present (“Beyond Good and Evil” and “The Berlin Affair” would follow), “The Night Porter” is the film Cavani will forever be remembered for. The story is set in 1950s Vienna and rekindles the flames of a sadomasochistic passion that developed between an SS Nazi officer (Dirk Bogarde) and a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) during World War II. Banned in Italy, the film infuriated Roger Ebert (he gave it one star and called it "despicable") and posed a kind of cultural threat in the ’70s, re-opening wounds that barely begun to heal. Whether Cavani veils fascism in a twisted romantic light or is merely dabbling in allegory is neither here nor there when talking about how downright disturbing and ceaselessly cinematic her scenes of mental and physical torture are. Bogarde and Rampling turn in fantastic performances that are equal parts subtle and hysterical, and their complex hate/love for one another is masked by an omnipresent atmosphere of European high culture (operas, lavish hotels, high-end amenities, etc.), widening the possibilities of interpretation. With sinister flashbacks, painstakingly involved composition and claustrophobic scenes of the present, Cavani utilizes BDSM in provocative ways, smearing the psychological makeup of people stuck in the past with tremendous results.

“Story Of O” (1975)
Published in 1954, Anne Declos’ Marquis de Sade-influenced novel “Story Of O” (published under the nom de plume Pauline Reage) was one of the most important literary works in introducing BDSM to a wider audience —as a literary phenomenon, it was inevitable that the book would make it to the screen at some point. “Wages Of Fear” and “Les Diaboliques” helmer Henri-Georges Clouzot unsuccessfully attempted to mount an adaptation at one point, but it eventually reached the screen thanks to “Emmanuelle” director Just Jaeckin in 1975. It’s largely plot-free, involving a young woman called O (Corinne Cleary) whose lover Rene (Udo Kier) brings her to a chateau to be initiated in the world of sadomasochism by his step-brother Sir Stephen (Anthony Steel). It’s a clear forerunner to ‘Fifty Shades,’ though the exploits are a fair bit more hardcore and shares many of the same dramatic weaknesses. If your inclinations line up with the film’s ensemble, there might be some allure (though the presence of Kier is, frankly a little off-putting), but the characters are so blank, the material so repetitive, and the direction so cheap and shoddy (and often unintentionally funny, like the LOL-tastic owl mask that O wears at the end) that it’s typically hard for the non-inclined to get anything out of it. Still, the whole thing’s on YouTube, though the film was banned in the UK until 2000.

“In the Realm Of The Senses” (1976)
It might feel like unsimulated sex scenes in serious arthouse cinema is a relatively recent invention in light of films like “The Idiots,” “9 Songs,” “The Brown Bunny,” “Shortbus” and “Nymphomaniac." But “In The Realm Of The Senses,” from the late Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, caused significant fuss four decades ago. Technically a French production (Japanese laws only allowed the explicit film to be made as a foreign production), it’s set in Tokyo in 1936, as the owner of a hotel (Tatsuya Fuji) begins a boundary-pushing relationship with a maid (Eiko Matsuda) who used to be a prostitute. Based loosely on a real-life event involving a woman named Sada Abe and with the Japanese title “Ai No Corrida” (which translates literally as “Bullfight Of Love,” which is rather more fitting), it’s a portrait of an all-consuming love affair. But while it has political (and particularly in the context of the others films on this list, feminist) overtones, this film manages to effectively mix the sensual and the disturbing. Though obviously there’s more of the latter in the film’s famous finale, in which Fuji is strangled to death mid-coitus and Matsuda then cuts his penis off. It’s a tremendous example of using real sex as a storytelling technique rather than as pure titillation.

“Tightrope” (1984)
It’s quite hard to reconcile the somewhat beige, Oscar-magnet, hit-the-golf-course-by-five Clint Eastwood of “Invictus,” “Hereafter,” “Changeling” and “American Sniper” with the guy who could only a few decades earlier appear in a film like Richard Tuggle’s “Tightrope.” A surprisingly racy police procedural/character study, this film functions as if Dirty Harry was played by Michael Fassbender’s character from “Shame.” Eastwood plays New Orleans detective Wes Block, who is tracking a rapist/murderer preying on sex workers, the twist being that Block’s own sexual proclivities aren’t all that far from the killer’s own, complete with mild bondage. Though this film contains the lowest quantity of BDSM-themed content on this list, it’s fascinating if only for being a mainstream genre picture that saw one of Hollywood’s biggest, most respected stars engaging in some less-than-vanilla fucking and taking advantage of witnesses and prostitutes in the process. Yet the most interesting element of the film is that Eastwood gives his character a broken center: he forms a burgeoning relationship with feminist self-defense class leader Genevieve Bujold, who gradually exposes his damaged core and teaches him to actually respect and trust women. Sure, it’s a bit judge-y and questionably coded in places (not least when Clint enters a “Cruising”-esque gay bar, though it’s diffused somewhat by a semi-jokey suggestion of his bisexuaity), but it’s still a fascinating curio in Eastwood’s career.

“Blue Velvet” (1986)
Fifty? Please. This color needs only one shade. Considered by a substantial chunk of David Lynch fans as one of his greatest directorial accomplishments, “Blue Velvet” has grown into an iconic film and is a compulsory addition to any discussion of S&M’s ropey history in cinema. It’s almost 30 years old, yet hardly anyone before or since has been able to rival the on-screen chemistry Lynch gets out of Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini and the Heineken-hating Dennis Hopper, which percolates with equal doses of perversion, violence, BDSM and innocence. It’s another classic film dealing in masochism and sexual perversion that had Roger Ebert famously disappointed (see “The Night Porter” above), but it’s clear that when Ebert calls Lynch out on “whistling that it was all in fun,” there’s a clear misunderstanding of the director’s attempt to satirize and expose the frivolity of suburban society. The notorious scene of MacLachlan’s earnest, naked, college kid Jeffrey hiding in Dorothy’s (Rossellini) closet, and watching Hopper’s deranged and psychotic Frank Booth inhaling unidentified gas and screaming for mommy ranks right up there among the most disturbing sexually perverse scenes ever put on film. A testament to the power of the scene is that there’s actually very little violence onscreen. Thanks in large part to Hopper and Rossellini’s immersive performances, and Lynch playing to his strengths again (this was his follow-up to the failed “Dune”), “Blue Velvet” is BDSM at its most cinematically gratifying.   

"Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" (1990)
Pedro Almodovar never met a sexual taboo he didn’t want to bust, and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” sees the director get his kink on in satisfying fashion, even if the film doesn’t rank among his best. A comic precursor to the much-later “The Skin I Live In,” the film marked the end of a chapter for Almodóvar; he fell out with muse Carmen Maura in pre-production, after telling her she was too old for the female lead (they wouldn’t work together until they reconciled for “Volver”), and it marked his last collaboration for two decades with Antonio Banderas, who went to Hollywood after the film’s success. As for ‘Tie Me Up!,’ it’s difficult; essentially a sweet romantic comedy, but one where the obsessive behavior often seen in the genre is taken to new extremes, with Banderas’ mental patient kidnapping a porn-actress-turned-horror-starlet (Victoria Abril), with whom he once slept with, and who he keeps tied to her bed, eventually with her consent. There are troubling aspects —the film was derided by feminists on release— but the film’s sweetness, provided by vulnerable, big-hearted turns by Banderas, Abril and Loles Léon, makes it work. The film’s also earned its place in cinema history for reasons beyond its quality: Miramax sued the MPAA after the film was given an X rating, kicking off a debate that would eventually lead to the creation of the NC-17 rating. 

“The Piano Teacher” (2001)
Continuing his thematic exorcism of demons lurking in civilized societies, Michael Haneke adapted Elfriede Jelinek’s novel into one of his most critically acclaimed films in the early 2000s. In fairness, the success of “The Piano Teacher” is as indebted to the remarkable central performance from Isabelle Huppert (her first for Haneke), who plays the tormented Erika with such uncanny aplomb and rattling verve that it’s likely the greatest performance ever given in a Haneke film (a thousand apologies to Emmanuelle Riva, but she’d probably agree). In public, Erika has the reputation of being an exceptionally gifted pianist and ruthlessly strict instructor. But her private life is riddled with emotional and psychological pain, which she expresses through perverse outings, self-mutilation and a patently eerie relationship with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot). When she meets young Walter (Benoît Magimel, more than holding his own next to the towering Huppert), her private life gets a lot more sadomasochistic and sexual, climaxing in a frightfully distressing rape scene, the implications of which would give even the most poker-faced psychoanalyst a permanent twitch. Haneke’s signature surgical style distances “The Piano Teacher” from aggrandizement and delves into painfully realistic psychological realms you’ll rarely want to visit again but that will undoubtedly shake you to your core. Similar to Cavani’s ‘Night Porter,’ “The Piano Teacher” uses Viennese high culture as a mask to hide a much darker place, where pain and gratification go hand in hand in attempt to reach out for some just-out-of-reach happiness.

“Secretary” (2002)
Perhaps the best-known mainstream take on S&M, bondage and kink to modern audiences before “Fifty Shades Of Grey” (enough so that the earlier film’s released a special trailer to surf the E.L. James wave, which is fair enough given the debt that James owes it), Steven Shainberg’s film “Secretary” is unlikely: essentially, it’s a BDSM rom-com, one that works remarkably well. Adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson from a short story by Mary Gaitskill, it’s led by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee, a troubled, self-harming young woman who lands a job with James Spader’s quirky lawyer E. Edward Grey (hmm, Grey…), who eventually initiates her in his non-vanilla practices. The film’s structured like a more traditional romantic comedy, complete with a runaway bride scene (Gaitskill dismissed the adaptation as “the ‘Pretty Woman’ version"), but it’s surprisingly very effective at melding darker material with something that’s genuinely light, funny and romantic in places, while also giving both Spader and Gyllenhaal a fair shake when it comes to their psychology, even if it’s a little too neat in places. It’s particularly notable as one of the first films to suggest that, while BDSM can be a result of damage, it can also be a way to heal, and the conclusion is unexpectedly sweet.


The Duke of Burgundy” (2015)
It’s barely three weeks into its theatrical release, but we’re feeling pretty damn confident about Peter Strickland’s BDSM masterpiece “The Duke of Burgundy.” Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna lead an all-female cast as two lovers who love to role-play, love to dominate and be dominated (respectively), but above all else, love each other. The film studies the ebbs and flows of their relationship, as it seems to drift away from its once-passionate sensations, in a similar manner to how Knudsen’s Cynthia studies the evolutionary cycles of butterflies. Thanks to the film’s creative liberty, Strickland’s way of tapping into inspirations and paying homage to influences (which we’ve recently unpacked here), and the two central performances from Knudsen and D’Anna that give new meaning to the phrase “opposites attract,” ‘Duke’ is sensational cinema reaching the highest heights without ever resorting to kitschy sensationalism, including one sequence that directly points to Stan Brakhage and will leave you with fluttering butterflies in your stomach. With every cinematic element working in perfect unity, the film’s greatest achievement is that for an hour and 40 minutes, it makes you feel like you’re watching the only BDSM movie that has ever existed, with even its clearest ancestor (“The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant”) a distant memory. As far as 2015 S&M romance is concerned, it’s your move ‘Fifty Shades.’ Good luck with that.

Honorable Mentions: Did films above not quite scratch your itch? There’s plenty more. As we mentioned, Bava’s “The Whip & The Body” and Bunuel’s “Belle De Jour” were early pioneers, while “Venus In Furs” (not the Polanski version, though the Polish director did tackle the subject in 1992’s “Bitter Moon”) hit in the same year as the latter. David Cronenberg’s gone to the well a few times, with “Videodrome,” “Crash” and “A Dangerous Method.”  

There’s also 1980s bonkbuster “9 1/2 Weeks,” odd Terry Jones-directed Julie Walters comedy “Personal Services,” Mike Leigh’s “Life Is Sweet,” in which Jane Horrocks’ character has some… particular tastes, smash hit erotic thriller “Basic Instinct” (and knock-offs like “Body Of Evidence”), nausea-inducing ‘comedy’ “Exit To Eden” with Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell, and ropey British fetish-themed-film “Preaching To The Perverted.”

Plus of course, Catherine Breillat’s “Romance”; Philip Kaufman’s Marquis De Sade biopic “Quills” with Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet; Chen Kaige’s terrible English-language thriller “Killing Me Softly” starring Heather Graham; Gretchen Mol in “The Notorious Betty Page”; Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson in Craig Brewer’s provocative “Black Snake Moan”; John Cameron Mitchell’s brilliant and very explicit “Shortbus”; and the aforementioned “Nymphomaniac” and “The Duke Of Burgundy.”

– Oliver Lyttelton, Nik Grozdanovic

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , ,


Comments

Ana B.

So, "Cruising" doesn’t even get an honorable mention? Am I missing something?

A.

Didn’t quite appreciate the “In the Realm Of The Senses” spoiler.

Megan Zvacek Christopher

Charles

DoktorMabuse

Lot of great films here but "The Duke Of Burgundy" is not only the best film on the list but is probably the best film of 2015.

D.

Where’s Maitresse!?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *