Wide Angle 19.3 (1997) 13-40
"The Lady of Little Death"
"You are dreaming," she cried. "Wake up!" She grasped my arm with her marble hand. "Wake up" she repeated, this time in a low, gruff voice.
Pain is as capable, perhaps more so, of inscribing bodies as pleasure.
The Nostalgic Habitat: Versailles
You may enter this space not finding anything in particular to remind you of the sex act: no unmade beds, no posing bodies, no pastel lights. You have taken a dark elevator and walked into the gracious decor of one of New York City's most refined S/M houses. You encounter blue velvet-covered walls which open and close like sliding doors and regulate an ongoing traffic of clients who want to visit the different rooms: the dungeon, the medical room, the [End Page 13] classroom, Times Square, the virtual reality room, and Versailles. This last one is an ostentatious anteroom for visitors who want to initiate theater pieces in faux aristocratic environments furnished with fireplaces, marble statues, gilt frames, and brocaded thrones. Versailles casts an illusion of tactile organization and orderliness in the heart of a congested metropolis. To the uninformed outsider, the stage setup of Versailles evokes the stifling code of conduct of the upper-class. To the s/m practitioner, however, this master-servant space houses a protocol of subterfuge and erotic cruelty. 1 Looking at the variety of performances and fantasies enacted in Versailles (and its hidden dungeons) "sadomasochism" becomes a polymorphous body of sex acts which deviate from straight, genital-oriented, plotless intercourse--spanking, gagging, body piercing, urinating, infantilism, cross-dressing. The dominant and submissive partners engage in role-play and transform the bedroom ritual into a "holistic" event which purposefully moderates, and artfully interrupts, the goal of sexual intercourse and/or reproduction.
"Versailles," as a setting for treacherous upper class rituals and status symbols, provides the framework for the early pornographic film art of Maria Beatty (Fig. 1). As a literary reference and ideological statement, Beatty's work pays tribute to Jean Genet and his play The Balcony (1958), which anticipated the
S/M subculture's growing desire to shatter myths of paternal authority. In the play, "staged" types of eroticism become the equivalent of a symbolic castration. The satirical and erotic evocation of authority figures such as the Judge, the Bishop, the General, and the Police, are juxtaposed with the "egalitarian" views of a political revolutionary, Roger, who represents "the real world outside." In the final scene of the play, at the height of a Paris revolution, Roger undergoes an identity crisis and goes to the S/M house to (clumsily) act out a Chief of Police in the vicinity of an obeying "slave." Roger then castrates himself in a paradoxical attempt to impersonate and annihilate his desire for power. Roger is thrown out of the S/M house by the proprietress, Madame Irma, who disdains his lack of performative rigor and his lunatic gesture of self-mutilation which also stains her new carpets.
Genet's anarchic/fatalistic scenario presents Roger's tragedy as the dramatic epiphany of a wavering modern psyche. A new dimensionality in Roger's [End Page 14] identity emerges through his simultaneous impersonation and castration of authority. As Roger is forced to shape and grow into the world of gendered performance and state institutions, sexual and revolutionary activity can only be obtained through erotic and regressive reversals of identity. Genet thus presents castration as tantamount to a rejection of an oppressive, genital-oriented culture and an affirmation of childhood's sexually undifferentiated state. 2
Recasting Genet's master/servant narrative, Beatty's trompe l'oeil scenery further explodes gender binaries and moves art inside the frame of screen pornography and radical sex politics. Beatty's debut film The Elegant Spanking (1995) portrays a childhood memory and longing for mother-daughter gratification. The film uses a classical spanking setting of S/M pornography, and builds towards the gradual display of naked buttocks, meticulous spankings carried out by a lady's hand, and sexual climax. Punishment and...