Dir: Nick Broomfield, 1996. Documentary.

Nick Broomfield is a London-born director known for his minimalist approach with various subjects. His style is similar to the cinéma vérité techniques that many English filmmakers have adopted, allowing the eccentric or sometimes dangerous lifestyles of his subjects to overshadow any techniques used. His most popular works include Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.

With Fetishes, Broomfield travels to Manhattan in order to interview and film the women and clients of Pandora's Box—an upscale S & M parlor of pleasure and bondage for those wishing to be dominated by a mistress. The documentary is separated into eight chapters: slaves, mistresses, rubber fetish, wrestling fetish, corporal punishment, masochism, infantilism, and socio-political fetishes.

The first two chapters introduce the mistresses and their slaves, men and women who frequent the parlor on average of two times a week. They offer to clean, run errands, and do menial housework in exchange for free sessions. The first layer of footage is held up by the facilities alone. Rooms of decadence and torture are assembled to fulfill any fantasy that might come from a client. Others look as if they could accommodate royalty, and when clientele is not in abundance, the women can be found lounging and being served by their slaves. The focus then shifts to the mistresses themselves, with a large interest in Mistress Raven, the head-mistress and a dominatrix with a bit of a legacy amongst the scene. The other women slowly open up to the director, in the fear that his footage might portray them to be something they're not, or jeopardize their feelings of personal safety. Many have day jobs of great esteem and responsibility, and several found themselves married while dominating. Somewhere along the line, relationships, many with their former husbands encouraging dominating, fell under strain and were eventually destroyed. Some of the women are bisexual or lesbian, and each becomes a different mistress when dominating women.

The chapters following the first two are all about certain fantasies and have little to do with the women performing the service. This part of the documentary features interviews with their clients, most masked or facing a wall during questioning. With each chapter, Broomfield asked the men where the desire to be humiliated and or dominated came from. What he uncovers is that a lot of the men often had an early experience in boyhood, where being trapped, scared or humiliated led to sexual desire. The most interesting discovery on a sociological level has to do with the clients' professions. Many are men of great responsibility; doctors, lawyers, clergy, celebrities, etc. In being told throughout their lifetime that men must be the breadwinners and hold all the power in various situations, these are men wishing to lose control, even if for a time period. The women all adore this shift in power because, on the opposite social spectrum, they've been told by their society that they are the weaker sex. In their swelling sense of power and dominance, they also find pleasure in the theatrics of their activities.

Mistress Raven offers a challenge for Broomfield by constantly being on the defensive and, unlike the other women, refusing to let him document her activities. She doesn't work much anymore, and that's because she feels that she's done it for too long and too often. She wonders why their profession is of interest to the director, and presses that perhaps being dominated is something that he could benefit from. In rebuttal, he claims that he doesn't like pain, in which Raven fires back that he's generalizing the entire experience; not all of the men desire pain. Her aggression is also on the count of his technique. Though he assumes an unbiased stance during filmmaking, she senses that his lens is used more for judgment than understanding. I've seen forums on the director's filmography, and many people come away with a similar feeling. It seems clear that some of the women are perhaps struggling with mental and sexual issues, but their goal is to let the viewer understand that they aren't ashamed of their work. They are trying to provide a safe and comfortable atmosphere for everyone involved, and at times, the director threatens that security. Regardless of this, I found the documentary to be fascinating and informative. Like his other works, it's the subjects alone that keep everything flowing. Their openness shatters any sort of pitiful angle the director tries to present, and truly made the film a one-of-a-kind experience.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 18, 2011 11:07am
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