Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger went under, then came back up gasping for air and clutching his manly parts.
"Not since SECRETARY has a film so accurately and provocatively captured the subtleties of human emotion inside of an S&M relationship."
Blue Underground has earned a lot of praise for dusting off old, discarded niche titles and spiffing them up for modern collectors. Though the quality of the films they distribute varies, Blue Underground invariably comes through with nice transfers and generous extras (now if only they could work on that original language thing…). Their bailiwick thus far has been giallo, exploitation, and other cult titles from the '60s and '70s. Going Under is a recent flick that is not particularly exploitative or spicy; it is a clinical examination of alternative relationships. Will the typical Blue Underground zealot find comfort in the leather-clad arms of Going Under?
Facts of the Case
Suzanne, aka Mistress Diana (Geno Lechner, Immortal Beloved) and Peter (Roger Rees, The Prestige) are relaxing on a fine afternoon. She is sticking pins through his glans and he is gasping in pleasurable pain. From there, the two attempt a relationship outside the strict boundaries of the mistress/slave relationship, and discover that the rules are there for a reason: to protect people from the emotional toll of their predilections.
The Charge above from Sex Herald is telling, particularly if you read between the lines. Secretary was made in 2002, while Going Under was made in 2004. I won't bore you with the details, but if you cross reference some of the keywords like S&M or dominatrix on IMDb, you get a very, very limited number (like, three) of serious BSDM explorations on film between 2002 and 2004. So even favorable reviews of Going Under are reaching to praise a film that garned a mighty 17% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. These favorable reviews typically come from publications that specialize in sex or alternative lifestyles. The take away message is that there is a very limited audience who will appreciate Going Under, while the rest of us probably won't.
I'm going to come clean here and admit that I've never been in a serious S&M relationship. Though I intuitively grasp that there's more to it than leather masks and nasty commands, I have little qualification to judge how accurate or pleasing this film will be for practitioners. Going Under has face validity: Co-Writer/Director Eric Werthman spends much of the runtime exploring the emotional side effects of S&M. He presents S&M as a series of brief, intense encounters that require both mistress and slave to be "on" for the session to work. The anticipation of the next session is part of the game, requiring some forethought to get into the dynamic. Because this anticipation, preparation, and mental/physical/emotional exertion is so intense, an S&M dramatically colors any interactions that a dom and submissive would have outside the session. For example, after Mistress Diana has a session with a submissive we sense she doesn't particularly like, she breaks down in reaction to the stress. A "normal" relationship becomes impossible.
This is what I gathered from Werthman's tale, though such insights were hard won. Going Under is understated to the point of narcolepsy. Werthman's restraint is admirable and prevents Going Under from being a lurid foray into exploitation. At the same time, his ascetic approach to the material detaches the viewer from the heartbeat of the film. Subtle themes of co-dependence, trauma, marital bliss, and other tertiary plots become muddled; they bog down his central theme.
All is not lost. Both Geno Lechner and Roger Rees give credible performances. Rees has by far the more challenging role, exposing himself in all ways to portray a middle-aged submissive. He gives different nuances to Peter's professional life, marital relationship, S&M play, and outside relationship with Suzanne. His perceptive performance is compelling, even if he is curtailed by the downplayed plot. Geno Lechner gets by on screen presence when there isn't much going on. It sometimes seems that Werthman is exploring intimate ruminations we aren't privvy to.
All signs suggest that Going Under will mean more and be more entertaining to those who have some connection with the world depicted in the film. Eric Werthman chose a personally meaningful subject for his first feature, but such a subject requires the director to provide more connection to the audience. The inaccessible nature of Going Under is a sign of inexperienced film making.
Rees and Werthman provide an understated commentary that echoes the vibe of the film. Werthman is analytical, focusing on production details rather tha personal insights. Rees has a welcome enthusiasm that again echoes his give-all performance in the film. Rees and Lechner give brief, but engaging, interviews on the film. The best extra is the "NYC Black and Blue Ball" featurette because it provides validation of the movie's style and subject. Ironically, though it is brief and documentary-like, "NYC Black and Blue Ball" generates a more intimate connection with the audience and better highlights the emotional investment necessary to enjoy BSDM. The extras package doesn't seem thorough until you take into account the limited appeal (and therefore, success) of Going Under. In that light, the extras collected here are Criterion-like in their depth.
For a recent film, Going Under has some notable video issues. The image lacks detail, which creates a subtle blearing. Colors don't weep, but this lack of detail causes edges to be slightly indistinct. There are several bouts of digital artifacts. On the plus side, there is no overuse of edge enhancement and contrast is high. I had trouble understanding some of the dialogue and had to employ subtitles, but otherwise the sound mix is straightforward, mostly relegated to the front sound stage.
Sex Herald devotees aside, most will find Going Under an earnest, overly clinical, and thematically muddled foray into alternative lifestyles. Rees is engaging, but his performance is not enough to carry the film. Blue Underground gets points for stepping outside of their typical fare and for providing a fine extras package, but this isn't a must-have film.
Kneel, slave, and accept your punishment.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Audio Commentary with Co-Writer/Director Eric Werthman and Star Roger Rees
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