“I like the idea of putting my life in your hands.” —The Marquis de Sade, Juliette

This is the first essay in a new Diabolique column that will concern all things related to the Marquis de Sade: French writer, philosopher, smut enthusiast, inspiration for the term “sadism,” and, at least for me, personal hero. Born in 1740 to an aristocratic family, Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade witnessed the French Revolution (and survived its Terror), partly because he spent the variety of his adult life in prison. This was due to a variety of offenses, but was largely a campaign against him by his wealthy and powerful mother in law. Thanks to his sexual preferences and general sense of indiscretion, he was an easy political target. Regardless, the isolation and routine of prison life acted as an incubator for his voluminous writing career. He’s best known for his explicit, relentless libertine novels like The 120 Days of Sodom, Justine, and Juliette, but he also wrote letters, plays, short fiction, political pamphlets, and so on.

This column, Legacies of Sade, will explore his life and his writings, but also his influence: in cinema, art, literature, and even music. While it’s not a direct adaptation of his work, Bigas Luna’s 1990 film Las edades de Lulú (Ages of Lulu), is adapted from a 1989 novel that could best be described as Sadeian. The first novel of Spanish writer Almudena Grandes, the plot follows the sexual journey of the titular Lulu throughout her life in Madrid, and includes underage sex, lesbian sex, threesomes, transvestites, gang rape, sadomasochism, anal sex, fetishes, and so on. It bears a relationship with a novel like Anne Desclos’ 1954 work The Story of O, or Angela Carter’s nonfiction classic, Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography. Not only are all three written by women, but they concern the sexual freedom—and libertinage—of female characters. O and Lulu are similarly seduced into a world of sexual excess because they fall in love with a man. But arguably unlike O, Lulu continues this exploration beyond the scope of her romance and subsequent marriage: her increasingly extreme sexual journey becomes one of self-discovery.

In Lunas’s film, the teenage Lulu (Francesca Neri) has a crush on her brother’s friend, the older Pablo (Óscar Ladoire). He takes her to a concert and promptly begins her sexual education: a reluctant blow job in the car quickly transitions to a trip back to his house for a fetishistic pussy-shaving sequence, where Pablo makes her tell him about how she masturbated with a flute. This culminates in the loss of Lulu’s virginity, where they intentionally don’t have sex on a bed and she’s instructed to climb on top of him. In love with Pablo from the beginning, Lulu is distraught to learn that he has to go away for a few years to take up a teaching post. When he returns, she is much more sexually mature. They resume their relationship, marry, and have a daughter.

They experience a few years of wedded bliss, but they continue to push the limits of their comfort zones and explore their mutual sexuality with things like anal sex and cruising for transvestites. Things become complicated when Lulu believes Pablo is having an affair; he attempts to smooth over an argument about it in the middle of a party by initiating a threesome right there and then. In a dark room, Lulu is tied up and blindfolded for the encounter and is horrified to learn afterwards that the third man was her own brother. This ultimately brings her marital dissatisfaction to a head: she leaves Pablo, though he is devastated, and begins to fill her days with increasingly extreme sexual activities. She becomes obsessed with gay porn and eventually learns about an underground gay sex scene, where she can essentially pay to play. She soon runs out of money for these adventures and put herself into increasingly dangerous situations to fuel her addiction.

Lulu can be read as a descendant of Sade’s titular heroine from his 1801 novel Juliette, about an amoral young woman who embraces a life of libertinage and violence. She engages in every imaginable depravity (and some that probably haven’t occurred to you), including loads of orgies, torture sessions, and numerous murders, and is something of an anti-hero. Though she comes to meet and surround herself with a motley band of sadistic libertines, some of whom embrace a sort of apocalyptic nihilism, she rises above them all. She is genuinely happy in her life of wanton transgression and utter horror. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire said that she is “a being of whom nothing is yet known, detached from humanity, who will grow wings and renovate the universe.”

Ages of Lulu is not nearly as radical of a film as Juliette is a work of fiction; it is also a much more intimate narrative, revolving around one woman and her triangular relationship with her own sexuality and her marriage. Lulu is not transgressive on the scale of Juliette; she doesn’t attempt to overturn an entire social order across multiple countries in Europe, for example. But in the context of a still conservative, still overwhelmingly Catholic Spain—a Spain still finding its new identity in the wake of Franco and fascism—Lulu is the heroine of a dark, erotic, and transgressive fairy tale; a coming of age story for a woman, but also for women in Spanish culture as the country made its way from the repressive ‘80s into the more open ‘90s.

In his introduction to Sade’s life and work, John Phillips writes, “Sade’s Juliette can be read on many levels: as an adult fairy tale and a manual of sexology; as a political and philosophical satire and the most gruesome of horror stories; as a European travelogue and an 18th-century ‘road movie’; above all, perhaps, as a terrifying journey into the murkier depths of human eroticism.” Ages of Lulu, then, has many parallels to Juliette in the sense that it has loose fairy tale elements and follows a woman’s improbably sexual journey. This takes on the form of a “manual of sexology,” as Lulu and Pablo gradually cross various acts off their list of sexual transgression the way some couples engages in more mundane, domestic hobbies like gardening and home improvement. But Ages of Lulu is—as the title suggests—not really about Pablo at all; it is about how a girl establishes her identity through sex and through love, and then about how a woman learns to establish her own identity (and fulfillment) independent from a husband.

It’s important to note three things, particularly in terms of the third act of Ages of Lulu. First, while she does take pleasure from men other than Pablo, they are all presented as gay men; it’s worth noting that one of these gay men is a young Javier Bardem in one of his first roles (I would be happy to die in that threesome). She gets off on gay porn, pays to watch and take part in gay male orgies, and so on. Second, I would argue that Lulu is not addicted to sex (no such thing exists, anyway), rather she becomes addicted to transgression, like an adrenaline junkie constantly searching for a more exhilarating high. Finally, though the film has a happy ending—which gives it a pronounced fairy tale-like quality—she is not rescued by her husband, but by their transsexual prostitute friend and lover Ely (actress Maria Barranco), who is ultimately sacrificed. In this way, director Bigas Luna seems to be constantly working against conventional notions of heterosexuality within Spanish culture, marriage, and fixed ideas of masculinity/femininity. 

Luna actually made a number of films that satirized Spanish culture and identity throughout his career. Ages of Lulu comes just after his mind-blowing horror film, Anguish (1987), about moviegoers watching a film called The Mommy, about a serial killer’s relationship with his mother, all while another killer is operating within the movie theater. It bears much more in common with Luna’s “Iberian Trilogy,” Jamón, Jamón (1992), Golden Balls (1993), and The Tit and the Moon (1994). But these titles, which are deeply critical of Spanish culture, and particularly of machismo, belong to a wider series of films from different directors that explored similar themes in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Precursors to this can be found in the ’60s and ’70s from directors like Jess Franco, Jose Larraz, and Vicente Aranda, often best known for their cult and horror films, who frequently explored violent, sadomasochistic women either exploiting or enacting vengeance upon typically macho male characters.

There are several Spanish films featuring women in (often empowering) sadomasochistic relationships. Pedro Almodóvar explored this in Matador (1986), which features a strange—and incredibly erotic—love story between a female and a male serial killer, who consummate their love with violence. Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), released the same year as Ages of Lulu, presents a comic perversion of conventional courtship and marriage: a stalker kidnaps his favorite actress, ties her up, and is determined to make her fall in love with him, which actually works after a series of misfortunes. Almodovar’s later The Skin I Live In (2011) is a rather twisted variation on this same premise. Another recent film, Álex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus (2010), involves a love triangle set at the circus: a sad, sensitive clown falls for a beautiful acrobat, who is regularly beaten and humiliated by her husband. She doesn’t want to leave him, but instead seems to thrive from the abuse and is quite obviously aroused by it.

It is clearly from early in Ages of Lulu that Lulu is bored by the idea of a regular, vanilla relationship, both in terms of sex and romance. I’m sure it would be easy to watch the film in the current climate and bring up issues of consent and underage sex—as Lulu is a teenager during her first encounter with Pablo in the opening 15 minutes of the film—but Luna always stresses that Lulu is a figure with full agency, even at a young age. For example, it’s clear (at least to me) that Lulu’s reluctance in the beginning of the film, when she gives Pablo a blow job, is a reluctance born of inexperience and insecurity. She cries, but doesn’t want to return home, and tentatively engages in the mutual game they are playing. He asks her to strip off her panties, though she is still fully clothed, and without prompting she lifts her skirt to sit on his lap, bare-assed. She seems to take real pleasure in the pussy shaving sequence—a genuinely erotic scene and one that I will probably never be able to forget. Such an explicit, but also interior role is much enhanced by Francesca Neri’s enthusiasm, though I can’t help but be reminded of her mother, the glorious Rosalba Neri. In my mind, she would have been the perfect onscreen Juliette, but I’m sure I will have an occasion to return to Neri the Elder for this column (she did appear as a victimized character in Jess Franco’s The Marquis de Sade’s Justine from 1969, for example).

Like a somewhat more socially acceptable version of Juliette, Lulu’s character has an inherently transgressive streak at its core. Maurice Blanchot writes, Juliette is a kind of Bildungsroman, an instructional manual that teaches us to recognize the slow formation of an energetic soul. Apparently, Juliette is, from the beginning, completely depraved. But in reality she has only a few penchants and her mind is intact; there still remains an enormous effort for her to make, because, as Balzac says, a person who desires cannot be destroyed. Sade points out that there are very dangerous moments in working towards apathy.” Ages of Lulu, despite its flaws (it hasn’t aged well in some cases and drags a bit during the second act), at least never commits the unpardonable sin of punishing its heroine for her excesses. The moral lesson is not that Lulu needs to be less of a slut, or that her personal sexual power is an inherently destructive force, as in her namesake from G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929, and the earlier Frank Wedekind plays it was based on). The moral lesson, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that she is punished because she abandons love and gives in to despair, to an apathy that Sade may have pursued, but Luna does not. Lulu’s sin is that she’s on a one-way path to self-annihilation, a sort of death-by-gay-sadomasochistic-orgy.

As far as I’m concerned, there are worse ways to go. The ‘90s were flooded with erotic thrillers, but in most of these Hollywood titles, women were punished, not only for their excess, but for their very desire itself: Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993), Bound (1996), Gia (1998), and Wild Things (1998), and so on, all titles where women are demonized in some way for their sexual agency. Lulu says, “Sex stumbled into my life as an outlet.” It is a pursuit that fundamentally transforms her—though she does return home to her husband—but one that, as with Sade’s Juliette, burns hot enough to destroy her, though she never succumbs to these flames.