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Fetishes (1996)

Fetishes: Mistresses and Domination at Pandoras Box

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 87 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18


Michael Moore may recently have put feature-length documentaries on the map as a form of filmmaking that can have mass appeal and turn a tidy profit and win mass appeal – but he was certainly not the first documentarian to mix information with entertainment, or to place himself in the middle of the story. Since his debut in 1970 with 'Who Cares?', Nick Broomfield has been honing a winning combination of offhand charm and journalistic doggedness in over twenty documentaries, and is rightly famous for his ability to coax extraordinary moments of candour from his subjects, be they willing or not so willing. In the case of 'Fetishes', the interviews are strictly consensual – true, many of the interviewees are bound, abused and tormented, but this is not to make them talk, but rather to serve their own exotic pleasures (although one suspects that several wear gimp masks not just for kicks, but also to conceal their real identity from the camera)

Made for HBO, 'Fetishes' shows what goes on inside Pandora's Box, a Fifth Avenue sex parlour where lawyers, bankers, executives and other powerbrokers from New York's élite go to be humiliated by professional dominatrixes. In this documentary, as in Broomfield's earlier films 'Chicken Ranch' (1982) and 'Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam' (1996) with which it forms an informal trilogy on America's sex industry, what at first may sound like a mere exercise in prurience turns out to be a serious attempt both to understand, and to humanise, those who earn money fulfilling the fantasies of others – although here Broomfield is also interested in examining the fantasies themselves as psychological and socio-political phenomena. There is even an attempt, however superficial, to place sadomasochistic urges in a historical context of sorts by showing archival black-and-white bondage footage at the film's beginning, and occasionally punctuating scenes of submission with vaguely appropriate quotes from Toulouse Lautrec, well-known masochist T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and even Shakespeare.

Dividing his documentary into loose sections (with headings like 'slaves', 'rubber fetish', 'infantilism'), Broomfield illustrates the mechanics of a variety of submissive fetishes, and seeks to show what kinds of person “like to be tortured”, and what kinds of person it takes to mete out such punishments for a living, through a series of interviews with six Mistresses and a selection of their clients. The picture which emerges is of an establishment which at first looks intimidating if not hellish, but is in fact something of a haven where clients can work through anxieties and play out fantasies according to their own desires and dictates (which are carefully established in advance), entirely safe from outside interference (apart from the odd documentary crew) – and where the women who assist them in their needs, far from simply being exploited, are gratified and empowered by the process (and never actually have sex with their clients).

'Fetishes' is fascinating, full of surprising details, and often very funny. Sometimes, however, Broomfield's scattergun approach to his material makes the film seem shapeless and incoherent – something which becomes particularly apparent in the final sequence, where Broomfield, no doubt unable to find a meaningful conclusion to wrap up his different scenes, instead chooses to show a (failed) attempt by the Mistresses to get him to submit to a session. The filmmaker's own fantasies, it seems, are destined to remain sealed in their box, in this anticlimactic ending where, ironically enough, nothing is tied up.

It's Got: People being interviewed in very compromising positions ("you may have trouble with the sound because his head is in the toilet"); fringe benefits for the Mistresses (clients who like to be blackmailed and give money when asked, or who carry out domestic chores not just in Pandoras Box, but also in the Mistresses own homes); Mistress Delilah claiming that her regular dayjob as a researcher is the real torture; and Mistress Catherine complaining that one of her clients is "kinda sleazy".

It Needs: To be less superficial – Nick Broomfield flits impressionistically from interviewee to interviewee and topic to topic without ever stopping long enough to make a clear point or focus on any issue.

DVD Extras A cut that is ten minutes longer than the version previously passed by the BBFC; scene selection; brief introduction by Nick Broomfield; trailer reel of Nick Broomfield documentaries. Fetishes is the second of a six disk special edition DVD boxed set (Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons), also featuring Chicken Ranch (with audio commentary and an additional interview), Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Soldier Girls (with additional interviews), The Leader (with audio commentary and additional archival footage) and Tracking Down Maggie (with additional archival footage), as well as the history reel Nick Broomfield - A History (72min) and five VW Passat commercials directed by Nick Broomfield. Version reviewed: Metrodome six-disk special edition box-set, Nick Broomfield - Documenting Icons; note that Fetishes is also available separately from Metrodome complete with "fetish" packaging, and an additional 47 minutes of footage newly edited by Nick Broomfield, catalogue no. MTD 5187. Other editions: Fetishes (REGION 1) (NTSC) DVD Extras Rating: 7/10


A straitened guide to bondage and domination.