There’s always been a censorship label named "perversion" that has been applied to artwork, attitudes, behaviors, lifestyles, literature, cinema, and other human-produced or human-related topics. But who decides what gets that specific adjective? Society, high classes, religious groups, or governments? Actually, from all these options, it's most likely to be the last group.
When someone considers themselves to have a higher moral standard than others, they often feel they have the right to limit what they deem immoral or goes against their beliefs. Each society and time has used words to name evil and despicable deeds, and for centuries, these have been often related to sexuality. For instance, homosexual relationships have been considered –especially since the nineteenth century– perverse and damaging. And that's not the only example. During the Nazi regime, works of art, music, literature, and other artistic expressions were considered perverse and immoral because they didn’t fit the standards of this close-minded political group. We tend to use that word so easily without even asking ourselves if we really understand its meaning, context, and intention. So, throughout this article, we’ll try to select those movies that have that label of "perversion" to see the connotations applied in cinema.
If we go directly to the heart and origins of the word, it was a term used to refer to transgressions in law, social rules, or actually anything capable of going against established norms of behavior. Later on, it was used to name absurd and risible situations, things, or attitudes. However, it soon became the word we use to denote corruption and depravation, mainly associated to sexual affinities and activities. Nowadays we use this word referring to, basically, any kind of fetish or paraphilia. But actually, perversions are not necessarily related to sexuality. They are many examples related to it, but it’s not a general rule.
So what's the meaning of perversion? According to Freud's Structures of Personality, there are four different structures: neurotic, perverse, borderline, and psychotic. The neurotic structure refers to more functional beings, those who follow and represent social norms. Borderline refers to individuals who stand on the edge of reality and their own alter reality. Psychosis refers to people living entirely in their own alter reality. And finally, perverse refers to those who enjoy defying the laws of morality, life, and behavior. In other words, they are those who do whatever neurotics don't dare. They're against normalization and enjoy watching the other's (neurotics) anguish. As you can see, it's not entirely related to sexual behaviors (although perverted individuals can defy social rules through sexuality, one of the most patterned norms). In understanding perversion as this defiance, here are five movies that show the subversion of life's norms and morals.
The Piano Teacher (2001) Dir. Michael Haneke
This is a very good example of perversion, both in the psychoanalytic sense, as well as the common perception associated with sex. Erika is a mature woman who still lives with her mother, an extremely controlling woman. Her father, who's been secluded in a psychiatric asylum, is obviously not present, but his condition is a latent reminder for Erika. At first, she leads a sexually repressed life including particular desires for sadomasochism, voyeurism, and other kinds of paraphilia. However, she'll soon start letting them out when she meets Walter, her student at the Vienna Conservatory. Erika is an example of perversion, not only because of her sexual drives, but also because by having them and slowly exposing them, she defies both her controlling mother and society's perception of normality. Also, there's a point when Walter wants to engage in sexual intercourse, but she refuses unless he agrees to experiment with her and her philias, something that disgusts him at first. Here we have the pleasure of seeing the anguish of others. After some time, he finally decides to take part in her practices (or at least as he understands them); he beats her and rapes her outside her mother’s room. Her reaction is up to you to find out.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) - Dir. Pier Paolo Passolini
Probably Pasolini's most disturbing film (although that’s quite difficult to determine), this film has all the elements we could relate to perversion. In a fascist occupied Italy, four powerful men decide to make all their sexual desires and fantasies a reality. Together with other people who also enjoy similar kinks, they kidnap nine young women and nine men. In a series of unsettling actions that include torture, rape, voyeurism, and coprophagia (yes, the movie is filled with scatological moments), the film becomes one of the ultimate perversion movies, and not precisely because of the strong and explicit scenes, but also because they intend to make us feel anguish, or actually, subvert the normalized ideas we have about sexuality. I guess that, following that scheme, we could consider Pasolini a perverted director, since he seems to enjoy watching his "conservative" audience getting anguished and perturbed with his films.
The Skin I Live In (2011) Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
This film tells the story of Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon that manages to create a resistant artificial skin capable of enduring everything. However, when the medical board discovers he's been working and experimenting with human beings, they forbid him to continue his research work. In a series of flashback scenes where we see the past of this surgeon, he managed to lead his perverted lifestyle. Back in the past, he discovers that his daughter Norma is having an affair with a young man called Vicente. He abducts him and sedates him; with a colleague doctor, they put the young man through a sex conversion in which Robert renames him Vera. He forces him to have sexual relationships with him in a story of dominance and secrets.
Secretary (2002) - Dir. Steven Shainberg
This is a story of domination and submissiveness. Lee is an emotional young woman who gets hired as a secretary for an attorney. Soon the working relationship evolves into a romantic one where Edward, her boss, introduces her to the world of BDSM. Then, she becomes a completely compliant woman who fulfills all Edward's wishes and desires. At some point, they (or actually he) end the relationship. She decides to give Peter, her new boyfriend, a chance and starts a very conventional, or let's say "normal" relationship in which they engage in regular sex. After some time, he proposes and she agrees to marry him but the idea of being with Edward never abandons her. Why is this perverted? No matter what people say to her, she's willing to continue her life in that submissiveness, knowing it's disturbing her family and society in general. Moreover, it can be uncomfortable for us to see a relationship like that, and the movie expands on that awkwardness, making us feel even more disturbed.
As you can see, if we think in psychoanalytic terms, perversion is a wider term than what we generally think. It applies to everything that goes against the normalization of morality, life, and rules of behavior. But more importantly, it's not a set conception, since all those rules and norms adapt to a determined society and specific time in history. What is perverted for us, in ancient times might have been a normal behavior and the other way around.
You might be interested in: