Running time: 83 minutes
(Out of 5)
(See trailer below)
Fetishes is a film by Nick Broomfield, the master documentary maker (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, among others). It is part of his Documenting Icons series. Filmed in 1996 at the famous Pandora’s Box in Manhattan, NY, it looks at the role in society of a house of domination. Run by Mistress Raven - who bears a striking resemblance to Cher - Pandora’s Box is home to a number of dominatrices who cater to both male and female clients.
The documentary begins with archival black and white footage of a Bettie Page film. We are then introduced to the setting of Pandora’s Box - the fifth floor of a busy office building in downtown Manhattan. It caters to submissives who pay up to $1,000 for a single session (in 1996). That such an establishment operates legally in the midst of a busy city catches you off guard (it is legal as there is no sex allowed on the premises). Then we meet the Mistresses.
These women are a contradiction in terms. At first, they have you believe that they are noble and in control, providing a much-needed service. But in the blink of an eye, they can suddenly seem damaged and vulnerable. There is Natasha, who is described as the toughest of the dominatrices. Put her in a pony tail and you have the local Midwestern high school head cheerleader. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian school, she has a spiny pet iguana named Spike that she sleeps with. Probably says a lot about how she keeps men at a distance. In one shot, she first slaps a client in the head and then turns to look wistfully into the camera, saying ‘yeah, I’d like to get married and have kids some day’. In another scene, she is dealing with a male client who is into infantilism and is dressed as a young girl. Natasha is brushing his hair, and it becomes quite violent as she begins to yell at him that ‘being a big girl means pain in this world today’. One begins to wonder if it is the clients or the mistresses who have issues to work out here.
The other women are equally interesting and contradictory. Delilah was trained in the American School of Ballet and now works in research in her ‘normal’ job. She handles the more sensuous sessions (if you call clothespins stuck all over your body sensuous). Katherine is called the most sadistic and is an expert with a bullwhip. A very ethereal redhead, she comments that it’s ‘just kind of nice to be able to beat somebody every once in a while’, but later, in her apartment (which she moved into after splitting from her husband), claims ‘I can have a very healthy, normal relationship with a man’. Beatrice is the business manager, a French woman with a thick accent who they, of course, have handle the phone, which can lead to some interesting misunderstandings.
The establishment is designed to cater to any fantasy. There is the French dungeon with the guillotine (non-working), stocks, cages, and all manner of primitive forms of torture. There is the medical room which is very sterile and lit so that it looks like a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Every type of medical equipment that ever made you squirm is there to be used. A number of other rooms are available, though not all are shown on camera. However you desire to be submissive, it can be arranged.
I think that some aspects of a place like this are harmless. The guy who is into being a slave, dressing as a maid and coming in to clean the place every week, doing it not for pay but just for the privilege of serving his Mistress! (Where can I get me one of these?) But there were also some very disturbing instances. One client who has thoughts of genocide and killing people comes to be humiliated. They call him a socio-political client. I call him nuts. He says that with all the freaky thoughts in his head, he can calm down by doing something freaky. So they make him lick a toilet clean. (Nick looks decidedly uncomfortable when he has to interview a naked man whose head is in a toilet!) Personally, I would get this guy a psychiatrist and a Thorazine drip real quick like.
As I said in an earlier post, there are not many movies out there for someone like me who wants a gentler form of BDSM - the DD type. This is one of those that sometimes goes too far in places for people like me (I had to look away during the nipple piercing). But it does the job of answering Broomfield’s assertation that ‘most fetishes are the eroticization of one’s worst fears and nightmares. They reflect the worst thing that one could imagine happening’. I guess that is also true for those of us into DD, only on a MUCH lighter level, with the worst thing we could imagine being a spanking. For a great behind-the-scenes look at many different fetishes, including some good corporal punishment stuff, this is the film to watch. The ending is also fun as all the Mistresses gang up on Nick, claiming they owe him a session. He puts up a good fight and makes like King Kong, climbing up a piece of equipment to try to escape them. Available in the US on its own and also as part of the Documenting Icons box set. The full, uncut version (which I have) is available in the UK.
Pandora’s Box is apparently still in operation, though it seems to have moved as it now has its premises housed in a large basement facility in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. It has also merged with another domination studio, Den of Iniquity.