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Kink on film

50 Shades of Grey & the Duke of Burgundy

As a sexuality practitioner, my facebook wall has been plastered almost back to back with postings and comments on 50 Shades of Grey. I have avoided discussion till now, as I have to confess to getting only 5 pages into the first book, before concluding that not even for essential research could I compel myself to read to the end.

My interest was piqued though by viewing the 50 Shades film trailer, and finding I identified somewhat with the shy wallflower female lead, her exquisite awkwardness so reminiscent of my painfully shy teens and twenties. I noticed also it made me feel horny, and wondered how it would be to reveal that – not because the kink is a problem, my pleasure in that well established! But this particular story of kink, so reinforcing of those sordid paradigms of gender and power I have spent my life unpicking?!

50 Shades is (mostly) vilified throughout my Tantra, conscious sexuality and kink pioneering communities. For many of the 100+ million people who read the book this is their first intro to kink and as model for activity, it’s not a great or well informed one – and of course, its fair to say it wasn’t intended as such. Having decided finally to go see it, I hoped to clean my palette after with the Duke of Burgundy: an artsy European cinema hit from the BFI – LGBTQ film festival, which I hoped might have more substance.

Before launching any further I need to declare that my interest in watching and writing, is unpicking the relationship narratives we weave and reinforce through our collective storytelling: how those narratives both reflect and reinforce things we understand to be true about sex and intimacy.

I am also interested to see how BDSM fares on film, embedded in a narrative form extended beyond the niche or ghetto (depending upon your perspective) of porn. I am interested – as a visual arts practitioner who transformed in her 30’s into a tantra inspired conscious sexuality educator, enthusiastically exploring her own relationship with kink – in how we frame our erotic imagination on screen.

And I am curious too, more intimately about my own body and its feedback loop of responses to what it sees in film: what this tells me of myself, about the things that seep out at the edges beyond neatly parcelled and declared identities.

What I am not is a film critic, please look elsewhere for this.

50 Shades of Grey

It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Vocal criticism has been made in my community of its poor consent protocols, but at least consent was introduced as a topic, even if they didn’t always do it very well. And that’s the first time in a mainstream movie I have seen a character stop to put on a condom, and this not be a comic device for some cringingly embarrassing moment.

An intro to kink?

An intro to kink?

In the end though beyond liking a few scenes, it didn’t consistently arouse or engage me, the characters were just too shiny and vacuous; the relationship dance too imbalanced and co-dependent. And I couldn’t reconcile at all with the class / money / power / gender dynamics at play, no matter how much they may appear as truth to so many drawn to watch.

I reflected upon criticisms that it glamorizes abusive relationship and violence against women. I feel the commentators who see this fail to distinguish between the co-dependent structure of the relationship itself, and the consensual BDSM play as one aspect of that relationship into which the underlying structural toxic dynamic spills. I suspect many of these commentators would see all BDSM activity as inherently dysfunctional and abusive.

What did thoroughly capture my interest though was the audience. The buzz of excitement rippling through the diverse multicultural gathering who had chosen this context for a valentines date with themselves, a partner, friends or family. The excitement was both palpable and often vocal – from across the cinema I occasionally heard some shouts, were those voices of protest? Mostly though there was a continuous flutter of nervous giggling, excited laughter and chatting – with even a brief smattering of applause breaking out at the end.

Every day in my sessions, I deal with people who struggle to articulate even the most basic things within their relationships: things like how they feel, what they do and don’t like sexually, who they truly are as people. We have so normalised the repression and shaming of our authentic self, especially when it comes to sex, that much of my work is shockingly simple.

Being simple about what we like, what we feel, what our desires are – and how to articulate this within relationships and beyond, in an open and unfettered way.

An intro to kink?

An intro to kink?

The modelling for this kind of open declaration and clarity of intent isn’t great in 50 Shades. For sure it isn’t a “how to” introduce kink into your relationship film. And yet it has opened out something – a dialogue around excitement and arousal beyond the norms of what we usually see in mainstream cinema.

And it has clearly and consistently touched something for whole swathes of women, judging by the stats of who buys the books and others like it. For on the back of 50 Shades – other erotic and BDSM focused literature has seen a sharp increase in sales varying anything from 58% for the reluctant Dom, to as high as 298% for Captive in the Dark. And not only has 50 Shades of Grey given some readers a new taste for exploring erotica, people are also talking about it: over 33% of 50 Shades sales were made based on the recommendation of a relative or friend.

I myself first heard about 50 Shades from an old school friend. Our relationship still echoing our Catholic schooling together, initially we never discussed in depth the sexuality work I moved into – I sensed she just didn’t feel comfortable going there. But within weeks of her reading 50 Shades I had learned more about her sex life than in the whole of the rest of our years of friendship put together, and I am not shy about asking a question or two.

So Christian and Anastasia – far too polished and pretty for my own personal erotic tastes. But the buzz around you – people especially women getting interested in their fantasies and desires, discussing this with their friends and seeking more – now THAT REALLY excites me.

The Duke Of Burgundy

Duke of Burgundy

Duke of Burgundy

On the back of 50 Shades it was very refreshing to have this film as a complex tasty dessert, wiping away the slightly flat ‘meh’ feeling I was left with from the main course. From Peter Strickland, the film is about two women in a grand old house of indeterminate time and location (it feels vaguely 1970’s European). The film centres on elaborate sex games in which Cynthia apparently is the Lady of the house dominatrix – with Evelyn as her submissive maid.

If you are sold on the idea of this film already, you may wish to stop reading here as it’s impossible for me to talk further without revealing a plot spoiling twist we see early on, that continues to unravel all the way through.

For me the film exposes how relationships between subs and doms, so often subvert our everyday surface readings of power dynamics. For instance the person really in service is not the one dressed up as a maid. The person mostly controlling the scenes is not the dominant, and the desire motivating the activity lies largely with the submissive. For sure not all sub dom relationships dance this way, but it’s probably far more common than those simply observing the scene realise.

In many ways the Duke of Burgundy dances with similar toxic and co-dependent relationship patterns as does 50 Shades. Yet I had no discomfort with finding it really engaging and sensual all the way through, even bike riding scenes and furry moth wings eventually melding into and feeding my gentle yet ever present arousal.

Duke of Burgundy

Duke of Burgundy

I questioned did the artsy nature of the film, somehow excuse for me tired toxic relationship dances that I would find tedious in a more mainstream context? Perhaps there is a grain of truth in this. But quite simply there was far more to engage me: from lingering beautiful forest shots merging with lace and soap suds; corsets boots and underwear to die for – all the way through to the seasonal shifts we see moving through their relationship.

I found engaging the way the film portrays the dance between a desire for closeness, and the erotic charge of distance and surprise. This dance is the anomaly at the heart of our western romantic stories. For while it has become normal to assume our beloved to be both our best friend and sole desired erotic partner, we are also often surprised when we no longer feel excitement – one set of nervous systems responses – in the place that has become so cosy and safe, triggering a whole other set of systemic responses in our bodies.

We see in the activity of Cynthia and Evelyn, how creativity, play, roles, timing and imagination – are all aspects of a finely tuned BDSM relationship. It’s about SO much more than floggers and pain. And yet these very tools that are so adept at creating erotic charge are repeatedly condemned as somehow dysfunctional or subversive. We don’t have to be full on into BDSM or kink to play with this charge, but the degree of censure around such activity tends to stop people even going anywhere near. Which is one reason why I am happy to see 50 Shades out there being enjoyed – and people perhaps being surprised that it turns them on – however flawed it is.

Duke of Burgundy

Duke of Burgundy

But back to the DofB – as the relationship moves through the seasons, we also see how the the roles that once so excited, become routine masks that isolate and trap feeling. I loved the scene where Cynthia crumbles emotionally and can no longer hold her dominant role, exposing just how vulnerable it can be as the one continually directing a scene – again subverting popular notions of sub dom relations, and just who is truly vulnerable in this mix.

Masks of habit and routine can trap all and any relationships. One has to be really conscious and present to see through them. One of the benefits of BDSM play is having deliberately constructed the roles we choose to play, we can then also choose to switch, dissolve or evolve them – as happens so beautifully when they burn the scripts and moments of unfettered innocence shine through.

Finally to say I am looking into both of these films for mirrors of actual life, to learn and realise something by seeing them as mirrors. And yet of course it goes without saying they are stories, they are fantasy. 50 Shades comes close enough to a broad consensus of reality (not one I share) that swathes of people identify with it as a dream they perhaps wish could come true.

The Duke of Burgundy does not occupy this space. And even more, it doesn’t pretend to any kind of reality beyond the 1970’s soft porn films that have inspired it (there is a whole cinematic language feeding into this film that isn’t my area of expertise, so more on that here Six films that fed into the Duke of Burgundy >>)

In this respect what I enjoyed about the latter film most, was the way it sits at an intersection between a believable relationship narrative, with all its longing for and potential frustration of closeness. And at the same time it felt very much like a sexy Grimm’s fairy tale. For instance the appearance of a skeleton out of a reverie on Cynthia’s groin. Or the point when Evelyn kneels to gaze up at the towering black corseted figure of Cynthia: this is a moment of transcendence where Evelyn is surrendered to Cynthia as divine dominatrix, as archetypal dark Goddess.

Duke of Burgundy

Duke of Burgundy

To inhabit successfully erotic spaces, we need on the one hand the comfort and familiarity of a fellow adventurer, well known enough in their ordinary everydayness such that we feel held and safe. And at the same time we have to learn to suspend disbelief, such that we can enter into a space where reality is both infused and dissolved by the desired vision (if kink is your thing). Or with my tantra hat on I might say we are entering into a knowing of the divine, by transcending the particularisation of individual love.

We have to learn how to know each other really really well, and to forget all that we ever knew at the very same time. This tension that sits in the space between what familiarity permits to happen, and the erotic charge distance creates – for me stood out as the most well explored motif running throughout the film.

The Duke of Burgundy is showing at selected cinemas around the UK – my friends in Newcastle you can see it at my old favourite the Tyneside Cinema – I saw it at Cine Lumiere London.

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