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Disturbingly Beautiful: The Kinky Romanticism of The Pillow Book (1996), Kissed and Secretary (2002).

In the 90’s and the early 00’s, indie features were plentiful. Cinema was alive with original ideas and audiences craved non-cookie cutter films. Taboo subjects could be presented, and while some were disturbed by the controversial storylines, these productions were still allowed theatrical runs. I will readily admit, I do enjoy the off-beat subject matter. That is why I was immediately drawn to three decidedly different features dealing with those areas in life that people only speak about in quiet tones or go searching the internet for in the dead of night when they are all alone.

There might be a side of me that is a tad voyeuristic. I enjoy living vicariously through characters on the screen. But then again, who doesn’t? Perhaps what makes me gravitate toward The Pillow Book (1996), Kissed (1996) and Secretary (2002) is the inherent sexiness and dare I say kinkiness associated with these three films. Yes, I am well aware that Kissed deals with necrophilia. No, I am not condoning that behavior in any way, shape, or form. However, when you look beyond that, it is actually a beautiful love story about a man who will do anything to win the love of his life’s heart. There is a certain romanticism that permeates these features that seems more real to me than any rom-com in Nora Ephron’s universe.

Secretary captures the world of sadomasochism better than 50 Shades
of Grey
(2015) could ever do. Once again, I don’t advocate domination games that get out of hand either. Safewords are a necessity, and Secretary is way more than an obvious sexual thrill ride. It’s about two people who are drawn together that learn how to be vulnerable with one another, breaking down the barriers until there is nothing left but a union of the soul.

Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book explores a similar theme to both Secretary and Kissed. Two lovers that enjoy an intimacy that goes beyond the physical and touches their very spirits. That all encompassing and engulfing passion that burns bright and can sometimes end in the most tragic of events.

The Pillow Book: The Erotic Power of Words (1996)

Based on an ancient Japanese legend, The Pillow Book was written by Sei Shōnagon. She was a member of Empress Teishi’s court in the year 1000 and an author and poetess. The Pillow Book is a tome of observations regarding beautiful things in life. Nagiko (Vivian Wu), who is the protagonist in the movie is named after the author. Her father, who is also a writer has taught her since she was a little girl all about the Japanese myth of creation while writing on her flesh with stunning calligraphy.

As a result, when Nagiko becomes an adult, she searches for a lover who can fulfill her sexually and also enjoy her passion for the written word. After an arranged marriage that fails, she relocates to Hong Kong and becomes a fashion model. This highly lucrative career enables her to be able to pursue her true interests– carnal pleasures and writing. She enjoys having her partners write on her as a form of foreplay. However, Nagiko finds herself being completely dissatisfied with their inability to perform sexually or write legibly. All that changes when she has a chance meeting with the young and incredibly handsome Jerome (Ewan McGregor) in a restaurant.

They are immediately smitten with one another after they go to a private area where Jerome writes on her skin. Although she is aroused by him, his penmanship is another story. She orders him out and he boldly offers her his body so that she can “teach him” what she wants. Appalled, she runs from him and sets out on a series of one-night stands. Instead of writing on her lovers, they write on her. Still feeling restless, one of her paramours suggests that perhaps she should write her own book.

Nagiko agrees and pens her first novel. However, it is rejected. She finds out that the publisher who wasn’t interested in her work was her father’s publisher who demanded sexual favors from him in order to print his books. Nagiko finds out that Jerome is his assistant and she concocts a plan to use him to help her attain her goal of being a published author. Jerome has improved his skills and is now able to write on her body to her satisfaction. The two embark on a relationship that grows more and more intimate with the words that are printed on their bodies.

They fall deeply in love and after revealing to her consort her ultimate scheme, Jerome agrees to help her. He proposes that she write her first chapter on his body and he will present it to the publisher. She agrees. Jerome takes it to his boss and he immediately is enamored with the concept. He orders a team of scribes to copy the text on Jerome’s body into a book. While this is happening, Jerome reports back to Nagiko that the plan was successful and that he will be home right after business is finished.

After waiting several hours for her beloved to return, Nagiko starts to get edgy and seeks Jerome out. She finds him having sex with the publisher. Angry, jealous and hurt, she vows to get revenge for his act of betrayal. She starts employing other men as her “pages.” When Jerome finds out, he is furious and insanely jealous. One night, he speaks with his friend who tells him that he should try and “scare” her by pulling a Romeo and Juliet. He provides Jerome with pills and he goes to Nagiko’s apartment while she is away to take the medication. When she returns home after a particularly grueling day, she finds his body. His plan worked, but he has killed himself. After the funeral, Nagiko finds out that the publisher has exhumed Jerome’s body and has taken his skin and made it into his own pillow book. Appalled, Nagiko sends an anonymous letter to him demanding that he hand over the tome or he won’t get any more chapters of her work.

When they are completed, she goes to the publisher’s office and confronts him with his many crimes, from shaming her father to desecrating Jerome’s corpse. She demands that he turn over his pillow book in exchange for her novel’s final chapters. He does so and then has his assistant slit his throat. As it turns out, Nagiko was pregnant with Jerome’s child. In the end, she buries Jerome’s remains and begins to instruct their son in the same ways her father did. Except for this time, it’s from her book. The fact that Jerome is literally made into a manuscript is macabre, but the idea that he and Nagiko found pleasure in exchanging words and stories is somehow more powerful than actual physical love. Writing on one another’s bodies particularly when it was Nagiko baring her soul to him and putting her words on his flesh, that is erotic in and of itself.

Kissed (1996): Love Transcends the Flesh

Life and death are partners in an endless cycle. They are intertwined in a complicated relationship. In Lynne Stopkewich’s brilliant Kissed (1996), love is thrown into the mix except in an unusual way. Sandra Larson (Molly Parker) has always had a thing for death. From an early age on, she has been fascinated with it. When she gets older, she decides to explore this realm by working at a local funeral home. Soon, she’s on the fast track to learning how to become an embalmer. To her, death is beautiful. She likens the bodies of the deceased to shining like stars.

Sandra has her first experience with a corpse in the back of the funeral home’s hearse. She kisses him and a heavenly white light descends upon them. When she has her first “lesson” on how to embalm a body, she is repulsed. To her, it isn’t treating the person with the respect they deserve and it is rather barbaric. As it turns out, her boss, Mr. Wallis has a fetish as well. He likes to make love to the male “patients” as he calls them. After getting her first taste of working with the dead, Sandra goes to college to learn about undertaking.

This is where she meets Matt (Peter Outerbridge). Despite him being a little awkward when he finds out what her course of study is, he tells her, “You see it all. Don’t you?” His words ring in her ears. As she writes in her journal in the cemetery, she can’t quite shake the feeling that he understands her. When she meets him again, he begins asking her about working in a funeral home. Because she is attracted to him and feels “safe,” she blurts out that she makes love to the corpses. Instead of repelling him, this admission intrigues him. They spend the day together and later on that night, when she can’t sleep, she goes to Matt’s apartment. Their first sexual encounter starts off awkward but when Sandra tells him that she’s never done it before with a living person. He takes over and pleasures her orally. While she seems ambivalent about the sensations, it is almost as if she doesn’t know how to act with someone who is flesh and blood. She leaves him in the middle of the night to return to the funeral home where she makes love to one of the corpses. In total control, she is transcending into a spiritual realm where she is transported to another place.

While it is disturbing that she is doing something that is forbidden and taboo, this is one of the most sensual and erotic scenes that I have witnessed. The white light that bathes her as she climaxes is oddly disturbing in its beauty. Sandra is attracted to Matt. When she finds that he has been documenting everything that she does in order to “understand” and feel closer to her, she becomes put off. She tries to explain about how
she feels when she “crosses over.” Perturbed at her new lover violating her trust, she leaves and goes to the funeral home for an encounter. On her way to her house, Matt emerges from the shadows, scaring her. He starts querying her. Asking if she has done it when he knows that she has.

Obviously, tortured by not being able to break through to her heart, he asks her what it is about the dead that has her so fascinated. In a sense, Sandra is an empath. She feels their history, their lives, and their essence. When they return to Matt’s apartment, Sandra is restless after making love. Matt, on the other hand, is content and draped all over her. She is definitely feeling confined and trapped in his smothering attention. The next day, he shows up at the funeral home during a viewing. Sandra is clearly annoyed at his obsessive behavior. He asks if he can “watch” her at night so he can understand her complications. She tries to explain that it is private, he becomes agitated and runs away. After she finishes her shift at the funeral home, she goes over to Matt’s apartment where she finds him wearing a suit.

He begs her to treat him as if he were dead. Sandra refuses, but then she attempts to indulge him and it doesn’t work. They fight, and she ends up leaving. In the middle of the night, she receives a call. Matt simply tells her he loves her. Right away, alarm bells go off. She races to the apartment only to find him ready to hang himself. Before she can get to him, in tears, she tells him that she loves him. Matt responds by saying she doesn’t know but she will and he kicks the chair out. He commits the ultimate sacrifice by giving his life. As weird as it seems, it’s poetic because this is the only way that he can get to her heart. The only realm that she understands. When Sandra says that at that moment, she felt Matt’s spirit, that is the essence of the concept of love. It is about being selfless and all-encompassing. And yes, Matt’s death is one of the most romantic gestures onscreen.

Secretary (2002)

There are some darkly comedic elements to Secretary, believe it or not. For those that found the 50 Shades of Grey franchise titillating, that is vanilla fluff. Steven Shainberg’s production is clearly better. Why? There is true sexual tension between Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and James Spader’s Mr.Grey (what a coincidence). From the moment they first appear on screen together, the attraction is palpable. There is something about Spader. His smooth as silk voice, his tightly controlled demeanor, no wonder I didn’t have a hard time imagining him as being dominant.

When we meet Lee, she has just been released from a mental institution and has to start her life over. She attempts to obtain gainful employment, so after learning how to type, she applies to work for E. Edward Grey, a local attorney. He hires her reluctantly because she is grossly overqualified for the job.

Meanwhile, Lee has taken up with an old high school friend named Peter (Jeremy Davies). Their relationship is perfunctory and annoying. It is as if Lee feels that it is something she has to do in order to appear “normal.” However, her job is getting interesting. Grey is a taskmaster and finds himself getting highly annoyed at Lee’s consistent typos and inattention to detail. He is also frustrated by her unprofessional appearance instructing her to wear a hairnet and other attire. What he is actually doing is subconsciously grooming her to be his submissive. Lee complies with his every request.

In her time away from the office, she fantasizes about what it would be like to be with her boss. Sex with her boyfriend Peter at best is passable. He doesn’t provide her with the same stimulation that Edward does. Things get more stimulating at work when the growing attraction between Edward and Lee kicks into overdrive. They start to engage in BDSM behavior with Lee crawling on the floor with mail in her mouth toward his desk while wearing a yoke. This may not sound hot, I can assure you it is, the kink
definitely goes to 11.

After all the back and forth and the training that Lee is going through to become Edward’s ultimate partner, everything comes to a head when he has her bend over his desk while masturbating behind her. Ashamed that this has happened, he ends up letting her go from his employment. This action confuses Lee because she is head over heels in love with Edward. She thought that he felt the same way, which he does, but he doesn’t know how to process everything since this is the first time that he has probably met someone who actually turns him on.

When Peter asks her to marry him, Lee says yes since it has become apparent that Edward doesn’t want her back. Despite everything, she cannot get him out of her head or heart. One day when she is trying on her wedding dress, she throws caution to the wind and goes to confront Edward at his office. When she is there, she declares her love for him, catching him off guard. Perhaps giving her the ultimate test, he asks Lee to remain in his office until he returns. His orders are that she cannot move her hands and feet.

Of course, this goes on for days and the next thing you know, it becomes a town event. Her parents try to get her to give up her “hunger strike,” and Peter pleads for her to stop. Lee is determined. She wants her man. Unbeknownst to her, Edward is watching and realizing that he can’t live without her. When she has reached her breaking point, he takes her from the office and gently nurtures her at his apartment. For once, this particular story has a happy ending. The two get married and continue their arrangement in wedded bliss.

None of the films that I have written about are conventional love stories. They are kinky, they are controversial, but they all illustrate what love should be. Unconditional, all-encompassing, passionate and above all else, unique and one-of-a-kind.

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About Susan Leighton

Susan Leighton has written for many entertainment sites including 1428 Elm, VHS Revival, Cult Faction, The Queen of Style, TV Series Hub, Heroic Hollywood, That's My E and Crash Palace. She is known for her interviews with genre icons, Bruce Campbell, Joe Lansdale, Joe Bob Briggs, Dee Wallace, Michael Ironside, Jeffrey Combs, Josh Becker, Danny Hicks, Brent Jennings and Alice Krige. As well as prominent paranormal experts, Christopher Garetano, Chuck Zuckowski, Paul Bradford, Daryl Marston and Kristen Luman. She has also hosted two podcasts, Nerdrotic & Pop Culture Minefield. Her short stories are featured on the Get Scared Podcast on all platforms. Currently, she is writing a paranormal TV series and a feature film script with the hope of eventually obtaining "hyphenate" status, lol. Look for her collection of essays to be included in Lee Gambin's upcoming compilation on great sitcoms of the70's and 80's, "Tonight, on a Very Special Episode."

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