Before the cinematic adaptation of EL James’ infamous “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary” brought BDSM relationships to the silver screen. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, an unstable woman coming from a dysfunctional family who gets hired to be attorney E. Edward Grey’s secretary, despite her awkwardness, overqualification and incessant typos. The typos end up sparking their relationship, however, as Grey’s dominant side comes out in order to properly punish Holloway, who ends up being a perfect submissive. Rather than exploit the relationship for sexiness or offer some kind of commentary on S&M, the sex and related behavior is meant to be bizarre and comical. The characters are eccentric and their relationship works because of their sexual quirks. In this world, BDSM is not something to study or diagnose. This results in graphic sex scenes that are quite liberating to watch.
“The Sessions” (2012)
Sex on screen is always going to be used as a metaphor for human connection, but rarely is the metaphor as vulnerable, sensitive and touching as it is in writer-director Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions.” Painfully robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, the great John Hawkes plays polio-stricken poet Mark O’Brien with an enviable optimism and humorous edge. Living his life in an iron lung, O’Brien has never had the chance to have sex, so he hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity before death takes its toll. Awkward, intimate and heartbreaking, “The Sessions” chronicles the unusual employer/employee relationship and the special bond that blossoms as the two keep putting off the dirty deed until their next meeting. In the hands of Lewin, Hawkes and Hunt, sex has never been more satisfyingly poignant.
“sex, lies and videotape” (1989)
Steven Soderbergh made a remarkable debut with “sex, lies and videotape,” winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes and announcing himself as the definitive indie director. While sex is the first word in the title, hardly any of it is visually depicted, though nearly every line of dialogue deals with it. Ann (Andie MacDowell) is a buttoned-up wife that finds sex unenjoyable. She’s also married to the very bro-like John (Peter Gallagher), who just so happens to be sleeping with Ann’s hyper-sexual sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Things take an interesting turn when John’s college buddy Graham (James Spader) comes to visit. Expecting his old “bro,” John is surprised to find a quiet, mysterious and contemplative man with a hobby of videotaping women talking about their sexual experiences. Through the film, sex is discussed as a vital instrument for carnal pleasure, vicious betrayal, self discovery and liberation. It’s not about the act; it’s about the consequences.
The second collaboration between director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender, “Shame” does a remarkable job of making sex unappealing, which is imperative for a film detailing the abusive lifestyle of a sex addict. Brandon (Fassbender) is a young, attractive, successful and extremely sexually active businessman, living what is often advertised as the “good life.” And yet sex and success in his early 30’s are a burden for Brandon, as each orgasm is painted more like torture than bliss. His life is aimless, which McQueen captures with intense beauty and pain, whether through a long take of a jog through the cold streets of New York, a very naked stroll through Brandon’s apartment, or close-ups of physical distress during copulation. In “Shame,” sex is suffering that alienates rather than something that brings two people together.
“She’s Lost Control” (2014)
If “The Sessions” had a self-aware sister, it’d be Anja Marquardt’s “She’s Lost Control.” Following a sexual surrogate through her lonely and physically vulnerable existence, Marquardt’s film explores the darker repercussions of sex therapy with an unflinching eye. When the surrogate develops feelings for one of her clients, the very meaning of intimacy is called into question. “She’s Lost Control” is a brutal meditation on the boundaries of empathy. It’s now streaming on iTunes.