Fifty shades darker yet: five boundary-pushing films about pleasure and pain

As the Fifty Shades trilogy reaches its climax, seek out more taboo-busting sexuality and BDSM in this handful of key erotic films.

Kat Ellinger

Fifty Shades Freed (2018)

Fifty Shades Freed (2018)

The sting of leather on bare flesh. The thrill of giving in to pleasure and pain. The danger of putting your trust completely in the hands of someone else. Exploring the limits of sexual desire may seem reckless to some – terrifying even. However, there is no doubt when you look at the success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, both the books and film adaptations, BDSM is a hugely popular subject.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, follows the same line as its literary predecessor, focusing on the trials and tribulations of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a virginal young woman who finds herself in a sadomasochistic relationship with billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Through her dealings with Grey, Anastasia experiences a sexual awakening, ultimately learning where her limits lie. This becomes one of the main themes of the entire series.

In honour of the release of Fifty Shades Freed, the third and final part of the saga, here are five other films about BDSM, currently available on BFI Player, to whet the appetite further. Each one provides the perfect jumping off point for those who want to delve into the darker corners of eroticism and fantasy in cinema.

Express to pain and pleasure… Trans-Europ-Express (1966)

Trans-Europ-Express (1966)

It’s no secret that filmmaker, novelist and artist Alain Robbe-Grillet and his wife Catherine lived out their lives together as master and slave. Alain returned to the theme of sadomasochism in his work, time and time again, while Catherine wrote erotic fiction, under the pseudonym of Jean de Berg. Her erotic novel L’Image, which was published in 1956, became the basis for Radley Metzger’s soft porn adaptation The Image (released in 1975).

Alain’s first major work to explore the theme is also one of his most accessible. Trans-Europ-Express stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as Elias, who is travelling by train to meet a gang of drug smugglers. On arrival at Antwerp, he is sidetracked by a prostitute (Marie-France Pisier) who allows him to play out some of his dark fantasies, which involve bondage and S&M games.

This ultimately leads to his destruction in Robbe-Grillet’s suffocating and strangely paced plot, which focuses on the compelling nature of dangerous desire.

Afternoon delight… Belle de jour (1967)

Belle de jour (1967)

Luis Buñuel was not one to shy away from the complexities of human relationships. He’d previously flirted with sadomasochistic terrain when he paid homage to de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in L’Age d’or (1930), a film that also includes a notorious toe-sucking scene.

His 1967 film Belle de jour – an adaptation of a 1928 novel by Joseph Kessel of the same name – unravels the theme of boredom in a bourgeois marriage. Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) inhabits the perfect middle-class life. She’s married to an affluent and good-looking husband, Dr Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel). The couple own a beautiful home. The problem is she doesn’t desire him. Instead, she would rather imagine herself in a series of sadomasochistic fantasies. When her sexual urges become too much for her, she seeks secret employment as a hooker in a local brothel, to play out the games she refuses to speak to her husband about.

Not only does the film tackle some of Buñuel’s favourite themes, including bourgeois hypocrisy and the notion of guilt, the narrative also opens up avenues to explore the rich territory of female sexual desire, expectations within marriage and the power dynamics involved in sexual relationships.

Mistress of desire… Maîtresse (1976)

Maitresse (1976)

Director Barbet Schroeder is no stranger to presenting complex, dangerous women in his films. His 1969 cult classic More saw Mimsy Farmer cast as a drug-fuelled Holly Golightly for the psychedelic generation. 1992’s Single White Female took things into even darker territory, pitting Bridget Fonda against Jennifer Jason Leigh, when the latter tries to steal her new housemate’s identity.

Schroeder’s Maîtresse centres on the life and sexual liaisons of a dominatrix, Ariane (Bulle Ogier), who accidently falls in love with the thief, Olivier (Gérard Depardieu), who breaks into her house one day. 

Taking several leaves out of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Furs, the film examines a man driven by obsession for a cruel woman. Schroeder came under fire for using graphic depictions of BDSM fetish, especially regarding an unsimulated scene in which a man’s penis is nailed to a chair. Other men are depicted being subjected to pain, humiliation and torture, or locked in cages in various states of undress.

Although the film is not for the faint hearted, the underlying narrative does allow for some complicated romantic context to be examined, as Olivier tries to get to grips with the jealousy provoked by Ariane’s relationships with her clients.

Bondage and butterflies… The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Taking his cue from a range of lurid Eurocult cinema, such as the work of Jess Franco, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is an ode to the lush dreamy erotica of the 1970s. It’s also something of a cosmic cousin to Pasquale Festa Campanile’s The Slave (1969) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) in that it focuses entirely on women, and most importantly their desire, within the confines of a mistress/slave dynamic.

The relationship between the two main protagonists, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), plays out on a highly charged sexual playing field, where very little remains off limits. Men are never mentioned, with Strickland creating a universe owned entirely by women.

The film opens up the discussion of power play in sadomasochistic relationships, quashing misconceptions surrounding the nature of dominance and submission. Strickland also places a strong emphasis on concepts such as love, friendship and intimacy, making the film not just highly erotic, but richly emotional too.

Master and servant… The Chambermaid Lynn (2014)

The Chambermaid Lynn (2014)

Ingo Haeb’s lead character in The Chambermaid Lynn isn’t so different to Fifty Shades’ Anastasia, in that both protagonists are young women who experiment with BDSM as a way of opening up avenues of desire in order to awaken their sexuality.

The similarities stop there. Haeb’s film comes up with some very different messages about the nature of romance and sadomasochistic desire.

When we first meet the titular Lynn, she is a lonely character who works constantly, seemingly compelled to serve others. She spies on the hotel guests, trying on their clothes and hiding under their beds so that she may be privy to their most intimate moments.

This ends when she encounters a dominatrix prostitute (Lena Lauzemis) and decides to hire the woman to explore some of her own fantasies. Although Haeb is careful to never signpost the feelings of either character, master or slave, what we can take away is Lynn’s eventual transformation.

In this way The Chambermaid Lynn owes a debt to films such as Pasquale Festa Campanile’s The Libertine (1968) or Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), where young women are able to find an emotional connection, and eventual liberation, through sadomasochism.

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