S&M: LES SADIQUES is über-talented indie filmmaker Alex Bakshaev’s follow-up to his 2015 offering THE DEVIL OF KREUZBERG. Where in that movie there were stylistic hints to his devotion to legendary Spanish trash-auteur Jess Franco, this latest opus could be said to be an out-and-out love letter, a case strengthened by the fact that it’s dedicated on-screen to Franco and Franco-fandom supremo Robert Monell.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one has to be a Franco devotee, or even just a fan, to enjoy this startling slice of arthouse-horror, and it represents an upping of the game from DEVIL in every aspect imaginable. Teenage runaway Marie (Nadine Pape) has escaped a miserable hemmed-in existence with her recovering alcoholic father to seek the bright lights of Berlin, but desperately needs somewhere to stay. After barely escaping being raped by one conniving douchebag, she throws in her lot the formidable Sandra (Sandra Bourdonnec, returning from DEVIL), an erotic photographer with more than a penchant for bondage and domination.
Before long, the two are out on the streets picking up male ‘playthings’, for sex games that can only end in one way for the unfortunate victims. However, when Sandra commands Marie to head out into the city to find the next poor sap to receive the treatment, Marie meets handsome young Electroclash-style nightclub singer Corrado (Kevin Kopacka), and an immediate bond is formed between the two. There’s only one way the ensuing wrath of the monstrous Sandra can lead – to bloody tragedy.
Under Bakshaev’s loving and wonderfully skewed gaze, we find an alternative Berlin; an eerie, sparsely populated midnight netherworld, where shady figures smoke cigarettes in darkened bars and clubs. An early scene takes place on the newly-dubbed David-Bowie-Straße, planting the seed in our minds that this is indeed something of a Berlin-period-Bowie milieu, evoking through imagery what the late rock god expressed so magnificently on his records of the period. As for Franco, never has his ghost felt more strongly present than in a wonderfully lethargic striptease scene, where a tiny audience mostly made up of women pull ever more enthusiastically on their cigarettes as it progresses.
As far as this viewer is concerned, Bakshaev’s sense of rhythm is near-perfect. He knows exactly how long to hold a shot and modifies his approach in accordance with what the scene requires, in stark contrast to the constant, tiresome, super-fast editing we see in most mainstream films today. This is because he’s about the business of making a film, not a music video, and unlike many he actually knows the difference between the two. Where DEVIL screamed raw talent and huge potential from every nook and cranny, S&M reveals a filmmaker ready to take on the world.
While the Franco influence is worn on this film’s sleeve, from the off-kilter, blurry compositions to the more obvious Sadean leanings, S&M should in no way be reduced merely to simple ‘homage’ to the earlier director. There’s so much more depth to characters then we tend to find in the late maverick’s lurid fantasies (believable, actual characters were never that high on his agenda) and the sensitivity Bakshaev displays in his handling of the vulnerable Marie could be said to be slightly out of the older director’s skill set. For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, no matter how hard I think about it, I was at times put more in mind of the work of Andrzej Żuławski than anyone else.
It’s ironic in some ways. Franco himself would have been the first to admit that his films represented the commercial ‘trash’ cinema of his day, but on today’s cinematic landscape S&M’s Sadean tale seems doggedly anti-commercial, something much more in the realm of ‘Art’ than the horror stories that we’re now used to. Whether this is because of Bakshaev’s sublime cinematography and editing, or simply because the tale is actually character driven is hard to say.
The performances from every one of the film’s small cast are pitch-perfect, and the fact that the film is shot in German avoids any dialogue delivery that may sound slightly awkward to English-speaking ears, which was one small criticism that one could perhaps level at DEVIL. Look out in particular for a turn from Fassbinder veteran Harry Baer as Marie’s resolutely unhelpful uncle, Franz.
Had S&M: LES SADIQUES been made in the seventies or eighties, as opposed to last year, it would be hailed in cult and arthouse circles as a classic. If Bakshaev’s career takes off onto the trajectory that it so richly deserves, maybe someday it will.
Find Alex and keep up with his projects @SchoenerFilm.
Words: Rob Talbot