With increasingly regularity S&M scenes have been working their way into mainstream movies, so it was inevitable that a whole movie would be made on the subject. Going Under isn’t the first, technically, but it is surely the most realistic.
Back in 1973 when Lindsay Anderson included a scene in O Lucky Man! which a hypocritical judge gets a beating from a dominatrix the audience laughed, but 32 years later in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, when assassin in disguise Angelina Jolie shows up for an assignation in dominatrix gear ready to turn her paying submissive into a corpse, the audience response is somewhat different, deeply appreciative and turned on. It’s OK to like ladies in leather these days, and OK to ogle a domineering woman in such a get up. The 1973 audience laughed because the idea of a masochist, especially one who paid a professional to administer a beating, was a failure and a weakling in all manner of ways, from his presumed nerdiness to his having a secret life at odds with the dignity of his social standing, such as being a judge, and in conflict with the presumed morality with which he is supposed to conduct his business — such as being a judge. Nowadays a woman in kinky fetish gear announces that she is liberated, is out of the ordinary and uncaring as to who knows it, and is sexually active and creative if not downright aggressive. The reality is probably much different. It is unlikely, for example, that a university librarian such as Jill (Heather Stephens) in Tomkats can afford to outfit her bedroom with a revolving wall hiding an expensively equipped dungeon. But in movies of this sort, the S&M encounter is roughly equated with unrestrained lust.
The reality appears to be quite different, according to director Eric Werthman’s Going Under, which he is credited with co-writing with Jessica Gohlke. Werthman is a therapist, and so is his main character, Peter, played bravely by Roger Rees. Peter is married to a somewhat dowdy woman his own age, and they have a college age daughter. Peter also suffers from dyslexia, a condition he appears to hide and which plagues him because it prevents him from enjoying the prestige of publishing books. Peter is also secretly a masochist, and currently patronizes the sadomasochistic salon of Suzanne (Geno Lechner, from Schlindler’s List). Suzanne is, appropriately for the masochistic imagination, is German and has rather hard, square-ish and unsmiling features. Going Under is unusual in that it goes into quite a bit of detail about Suzanne’s background, rather than simply dwelling on Peter’s neuroses.
Like many a client of a working girl, Peter wants to see Suzanne in the “real world,” because he fancies he is in love with her. Suzanne’s background is a little bit complex however. Her mother is ill, her brother appears to have some kind of weird sexual fixation on her (there is an awkward scene out of Annie Hall when Peter accompanies Suzanne on a visit to the family manse). She is also apparently a lesbian (her Asian girlfriend breaks up with her in the course of the story), she is an aspiring artist, and, like Bree Daniels in Klute, she is trying to get out of the S&M biz, only to have her admiring ex-Madam come around to lure her back for one more high paying encounter.
Peter has about four dungeon encounters with Suzanne and one with someone else at a public fetish club; Suzanne has that lucrative encounter out of town. These scenes feel realistic enough, in that they are tentative, awkward, negotiated openly and silently at the same time. Suzanne’s out of town date seems the most realistic because her client is a crabby gentleman whose tastes are extremely specific (the red leather dress, not the black!). The film suggests that for Suzanne, her profession has less to do with sex and more to do with unleashing anger on malekind. Her intimate partners tend to be women and she can’t bring herself to kiss Peter on the mouth. What the movie really seems to be about is the unbearable sadness of deluding yourself into liking someone who really isn’t interested. Ultimately, for all his training, Peter doesn’t really understand Suzanne. And she can’t be bothered to try and understand him. It’s only when she is unhappy in her own troubled relationships that she seeks solace with Peter, leading him on in a strained, unpleasant, perhaps unintentional manner. It’s not the dungeon scenes that are painful in this film — it’s the hopeless chats they have sitting outside coffee houses.
Going Under was shot in guerilla fashion around New York City back around 2003, but apparently wasn’t released to the theaters until summer of 2006, when a New York Times review appears, and appeared on DVD from Blue Underground on June 26th, 2007 (Blue Underground is just one of about three DVD distributors starting to dive into various levels of S&M fare). It’s realistically but well-shot by Vladimir Subotic, who doesn’t bother to glamorize anything in the film, from Rees’s bony buttocks to the waiting room of the S&M parlor. The acting is good all around and the script exudes realism. As is typical with BL, the disc is packed with supplements. The main extra is an audio commentary track by Werthman and Rees. Both sing chorus like praises for Lechner’s Potente-style beauty, but Rees isn’t particularly clear about why he wanted to do the movie in the first place. Rees’s chat is mostly about motivation and how he felt doing various things, while Werthman specializes in discussing the psychological background. His remarks are supplemented by a essay attached to the disc in an eight-page Word document, “Reflections on Going Under” by Marta Helliesen, Ph.D. “As the film ends there are again polarities, this time represented by Peter being unfinished while Suzanne is finished. Within the unfinished is the implicit need to seek completion, which for Peter might lead to repeated experience(s) as a paying submissive with one or several new dominatrixes. By standing up for herself and telling Peter to go, Suzanne experienced a clear sense of self. She is feeling the loss of Peter and of the idea of them as a unit, but she is also feeling a sense of freedom. Instead of repeating her old patterns she has reached a place where she is ready to explore new avenues that can support her continued process of developing a reliable sense of self.”
Rees goes into more detail about his interest in the film during a new video interview with him and Miss Lechner; both are engaging and enthusiastic about the project. There is also a very short feature about the New York City Black and Blue Ball, which needs to be watched with the pause button in hand if you want to see anything, and a selection of BL trailers. Going Under retails for $29.95.
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