Saturday, October 8, 2016

S & M: Les Sadiques (2016)

It seems like only yesterday when we were checking out The Devil of Kreuzberg (2015), a respectably accomplished modern gothic horror film directed by Alexander Bakshaev that’s gotten a lot of due praise, and now, seemingly out of nowhere, Alex and the great folks involved follow it up with a killer Jess Franco tribute S & M: Les Sadiques.

I had viewed a lot of compelling images of this film when it was in production, and one of the images, which did not end up in the cut of S & M that I watched, displayed lead actor Nadine Pape channeling an iconic image of late ‘60s, early ‘70s Franco lead Soledad Miranda, and I thought it looked cool. It captured the original spirit but also had a different energy about it that was trying to impart a new vision, something that’s not only a great tribute but also works on a number of other levels, which is something that could also be said about the overall film.

It’s safe to say that Alex has upped the ante this time around with S & M, as the murder is more violent and visceral than in TDoK, and there is an appropriate amount of nudity for a movie called S&M, whereas TDoK had none. It’s not only a sexy movie; there’s lots of atmosphere, colorful lighting, and good character dynamics. In fact, I was surprised at how attached I felt to the characters, especially the lead Marie (Pape). I did really like the way she remains a sympathetic character despite her unsavory transition into a murderer.

In the spirit of Franco, there is a sapphic element to the proceedings, with lesbian sex scenes and stage performances shot with a sensibility that’s equally naughty and artistic. The intro to the film feels a little like an overture, consisting of some real smooth synth music that gives us a stylish taste of sensual S&M before transitioning into the main plot, which has to do with uncertainty in life’s destinations and braving the trail from a sheltered home towards independence, albeit without a solid plan.

Our lead girl, Marie, is a runaway of sorts, seeking independence, a new home, and companionship in Berlin but instead finds poverty, disappointment, and rejection. The first stranger she comes across for help kindly takes her in only to attempt to sexually abuse and assault her. She escapes and reaches her absolute low before, through a chance (or perhaps fateful) meeting, finding comfort and a home in an enigmatic, caring, but fierce woman’s arms.

Sandra (Sandra Bourdonnec) takes in the homeless Marie after coming across her in a pitiful state sleeping on the stairs outside of her apartment, and a tender relationship develops that isn’t without its fair share of conflict, gas-lighting, and the occasional tragedy or two. Is she an angel of salvation or damnation? The two female leads have chemistry and there’s a convincing sensuality in their love making, although Sandra is the dominant one and has a fierce side, biting back at Marie for any slight suggestion, firmly asserting that she takes orders from no one. Marie also serves as a kind of muse for Sandra’s erotic photography.

During her time under Sandra’s wing, Marie is introduced into her world - love, death, sex toys, corsets, pornography. I’m sure Marie has seen all of this before she met Sandra, but not with this type of emphasis. It’s a kind of awakening for Marie, one that leads to corruption (foreshadowing the theme of corruption, De Sade’s Justine is in clear view on the bookshelf). Marie’s character arc is quite sudden, one moment she’s gently caressing her pet bunny during a flashback, the next she’s strangling a male prostitute with her belt, at Sandra’s whim.

I’m not sure if I'm detecting a bit of misandry with Sandra, but she somewhat objectifies males, loving them as her playthings that she has fun with and eventually murders. When she tasks Marie to go out and find a new “playmate”, the drama is amped up with a third wheel, in the form of a nightclub singer, Corrado (Kevin Kopacka), a role inspired by Dylan Dog (which I can dig very much). Things get complicated, as Marie’s attempts at finding love and independence only seem to catalyze tragedy.

There’s an impressive image that gives me chills with Sandra coldly walking down a hallway spattered in blood wearing nothing but red thigh highs after murdering someone in a sexually disturbing manner. She comes off as a total psychopath, and the effect is awesome. 

There are pleasing visual aesthetics in S & M that do feel like vintage Jess Franco, like soft focusing, hypnotizing erotic nightclub performances, and a pervasive use of red with lighting that calls to mind a particular reddish smoking scene I’m fond of from Les nuits brûlantes de Linda (1975) with Lina Romay and Alice Arno. The couple of times Corrado is performing in a club, I’m reminded a little of the great musical nightclub performances in Al otro lado del espejo (1973). Alex infuses the film with the natural locale and makes Berlin a living, breathing entity in the film. I recognized the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the shopping district that had me thinking of the finale to Succubus (1967).

You'd think this was a romantic scene, but you'd be wrong... Oh so wrong...
S & M is a surprisingly polished and emotionally rewarding experience from Bakshaev and co. The soundtrack is pleasant and the lighting and cinematography are all ace.  I salute the love, work, and creativity put into it. It’s obvious that Jess Franco fans won’t want to miss this, but S & M does manage to elevate beyond being a mere homage and is a highly watchable and impressive piece of work. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. Thank you so very much for giving permission. Aside from the All category and the slideshow on the Home page, you can see your header under Entertainment and the United States.