Nick Broomfield’s entire body of work is an underappreciated gem, but his 1996 documentary about a tony S&M parlor can only be discussed in a Twisted Masterpieces retrospective. This one isn’t for prudes, and some of you might even hate me for suggesting Fetishes is a great film experience. It isn’t pornography, but it is unflinching; there are enough penises and ball sacks on parade, here, and enough breasts, to earn this one a strict, no-family advisory. And kids be damned — this isn’t a film you want to watch with your grown relatives, either. Broomfield regularly tackles controversial subjects (he’s made at least three docs about the sex trade), but Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam and even Chicken Ranch (about a Nevada brothel) are tame in comparison to Fetishes, which takes us inside actual sessions with clients — some masked and anonymous, others bare-open honest about their needs. What makes Fetishes a little bit twisted isn’t its subject matter per se, and it certainly isn’t the nudity (unless you’re very, very squeamish). It’s the way the movie enlists us to heighten its subjects’ longed-for humiliation — Broomfield’s camera and our own observation of the clients’ private acts contribute to their erotic experience. The more eyes on their submission, the better. This might bother some people, and it adds a tinge of (justified) prurience to the viewing experience, which should be mandatory for anyone who claims any degree of insight into human sexuality.
The movie’s full title is Fetishes: Mistresses and Domination at Pandora’s Box, and it was originally made for an HBO series called “America Undercover.” It’s fitting that Broomfield, a Brit, was hired to explore the occult world of bondage and submission in New York City, since he’s made a career of observing US culture and celebrity from a wry ethnographer’s perspective. His lens has been granted access to remote individuals and institutions and, as a result, Broomfield has given us the best, most comprehensive studies of Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and Aileen Wuornos, at least on film. There’s something disarming about Broomfield, who manages to win his subjects’ trust even though he presents himself — to them and to us — as smarter, more knowing, even a bit arrogant. Broomfield is knowing, but he still rubs some viewers the wrong way. He’s a love-him or leave-him kind of filmmaker, but for those of us who love him and his work, and who appreciate the impact he’s had on documentary filmmaking (Roger and Me is Broomfield cranked to 3,000), other docs can sometimes lack a certain character. Despite their shared penchant for reflexive doc-making, though, lumping Broomfield in with Moore does the former a disservice. Unlike Moore, Broomfield understands the arts of layering and subtlety, and the importance of honesty, and his films are more about his subject matter than they are about himself. He stands instead with the likes of Ross McElwee, Agnes Varda, Werner Herzog and other great, “intrusive” documentarians whose brandished egos belie the fact that their works are about much bigger things than the individual who’s making them. Broomfield’s onscreen presence generates a sly and fascinating dynamic between filmmaker and subject, which in turn teaches us never to take the documentarian at his word, and never — for an instant — assume there’s such a thing as objective filmmaking, or such a thing as a fourth wall of any kind.
Broomfield and his pocket-sized crew spent two months filming at Pandora’s Box, a Manhattan S&M parlor catering to submissives with disposable cash. High prices ensure that most of the parlor’s clientele is composed of bankers, lawyers, publishing execs, and various other elite. Pandora’s Box features a medieval torture dungeon, a chrome-and-steel medical theater, and a schoolroom, where clients can act out their fantasies with a stable of mistresses. The stable is run by Mistress Raven, an ex-dominatrix who got tired of cropping flesh and put other women to work. They specialize in verbal humiliation and physical restriction — the total loss of control, Mistress Raven gloats — and they’re proud of their skills. Mistresses Beatrice, Delilah, Catherine and Natasha are interesting subjects. Like Mistress Raven, they’re unsure about what to say to Broomfield’s camera, and they bristle easily, and they’re to a woman desperately seeking self-importance. But they’re also wise about sexuality’s outer limits and educated about fetishes (which they consider to be the eroticisation of our worst fears or shames), and they seem to do right by their clients, who look as euphoric as they claim to be after treatment. The women understand that they work in theater and that their skills are performative; they also (with Broomfield’s help) inadvertently reveal the performative aspect implicit not just in role-playing and prostitution, but in human sexuality in general — that every gasp and coo are part of the show lovers put on for each other, even when those gasps are spontaneous and real.
Initially, the film is built on interviews with the mistresses, archival S&M footage, and grainy clips seized from the parlor’s security cam. It takes a while, but Broomfield gradually levers himself into client sessions. The parade is anything but dull: there’s a house-slave who lets Mistress Raven use his tongue for an ashtray; an English gent who likes to be led around by a leash; a young woman with a spanking fetish; a man who regresses to infant stage; and an exec who commissioned a rubber suit that immobilizes him and forces him to surrender his air intake to his dominatrix. His is one of the movie’s more difficult scenes to watch because it communicates total claustrophobia (my inner progressive is happy for the man, but my inner control freak recoils). The most challenging scene, though, features a kupee doll named Maria who works as a professional submissive for male clients but who fantasizes about submitting to dominant women. Her turn on the operating table — genitals clamped and nipples pierced — is the film’s most provocative few minutes, and it will admittedly disturb some viewers, especially if they fail to notice her contentment post-session or buy into her “amazing high.” Others may be more unsettled by the idea of “socio-political fetishes,” which involve black clients being humiliated in plantation scenarios and Jewish clients being humiliated in Nazi or neo-Nazi scenarios (concentration camp backdrop optional). Every session demands that the viewer submit (in his or her own way) to watching a stranger express very real, very extreme and very intimate degrees of pain and pleasure; this may be in fact where our most “twisted” acquiescence is lodged, wrestling guiltily with taboo.
However suspicious Broomfield’s audience may be about masochism, the mistresses see themselves as therapeutic, even nurturing forces benefiting clients who “enjoy the superiority of the female,” as Mistress Raven styles it. Anxieties about gender, sexual orientation, and personal relationships figure large among her staff, and Mistress Natasha makes an intriguing point about needing her job to counteract her Pentecostal upbringing — to reject the “weaker vessel” label her religion slapped on her as a child. Working at Pandora’s Box makes her feel like a superwoman, she says, and it gives her and the other mistresses a sense of control they obviously feel they lacked before picking up a whip. The women’s illusions of empowerment may be conscribed by the parlor’s safe walls, but these illusions seem to be salutary for all involved. Pandora’s Box breathes an atmosphere of importance. It’s presented as a sacred retreat by staff, clients and filmmaker, and its absurdities attract our interest rather than our mockery. We only really laugh when the mistresses direct us to laugh, and that only really happens in the final scene, when four of them gang up on Broomfield and force a session on him. He ends up literally climbing a wall to escape them, but he’s laughing, too — in discomfort and disbelief. He’s also laughing at his own prudishness, recognizing limitations in himself that no longer sit so comfortably. His nervous expressions are apologetic, and his reaction bridges director to viewer and makes us all question our judgment — if we ever judged — about Pandora’s purpose and clientele. The documentarian has done his job, in daring form. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Twisted Masterpieces series, on November 20, 2008.)