James Franco continues to build the most singular resume of any Hollywood leading man by producing this diverting docu on the online BDSM scene, though he’s safely offscreen throughout. Viewers may understand why after seeing the extreme fetish equipment hauled out for display here, from standard-issue riding crops to whirring anal drills. Still, director Christina Voros is here to educate rather than titillate, aiming to remove the unsavory stigma from an unusual leisure activity. It remains to be seen who will get the message, as scene after scene of explicit sadomasochistic activity will keep the pic confined to the fest circuit.
Presenting “Kink” at Sundance in the horror-heavy Park City at Midnight section arguably builds expectations of shock value that run counter to Voros’ intentions of demystifying the BDSM world, but even the most wholesome approach to this subject is going to yield some wincing from the uninitiated. Coming in at a brisk but decidedly adequate 80 minutes, the pic takes the structural form of a typical day of filming in the San Francisco offices of Kink.com, the world’s largest producer of online BDSM video content.
The tone, therefore, is cheerfully businesslike, as though auds might be considering a position at Kink.com themselves: Voros and her interview subjects are frank about the practical hows, wheres and whys of the business. None of it is particularly erotic in its presentation, but those looking for an eyeful will get one, as the camera takes in a plethora of exposed bodies — covering a range of ages, genders and sexualities — in sundry dominant and submissive states, in such reconstructed settings as a public restroom or abattoir.
Peppered throughout are soundbites from the participants explaining their personal relationship to BDSM, with one citing the “therapeutic nature of porn” and another claiming “fallen little-lady syndrome.” Vietnamese performer Van Darkholme’s reasoning that the seed was planted for him by a Catholic boarding-school education, with nun-administered corporal punishment, is about as dark as the film’s psychology gets. The general emphasis is on healthy stability and personal gain: “I am the strongest person in the world,” beams one woman after a particularly grueling round. “Look what I just handled.”
The consistently celebratory stance of “Kink” is commendable, but also feels somewhat limiting: There’s a defensive tone to some of the testimonies, and it’d be interesting to hear from a few subjects with more conflicted BDSM histories, if only to help viewers better understand the potential challenges of the lifestyle, and the difference between good and bad practice. Meanwhile, the “don’t try this at home” warning with some of the more severe, prop-led setups goes without saying.
That tech credits are strictly functional seems appropriate, playing into the film’s twin preoccupations with authenticity and normalization.