Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Dial S&M For Marnie

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

“Later today, we’ll be debuting a new column from Lauren Wissot, whose work you might have also read at The House Next Door and/or The Reeler. Lauren, who will be tackling (no pun intended) sexual themes in indie and classic cinema every Wednesday, will begin with a revisionist take on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie.” We wanted to call her column “Art Films To Jerk Off To,” but in the end that might be too limiting––after all, who’s to say what qualifies as art?”

Dial S&M For Marnie

Lauren Wissot reclaims the misunderstood Hitchcock film as a rigorous work of erotic art.

“Marnie” is the film in the Hitchcock canon most guaranteed to rankle feminists. Tippi Hedren plays the frigid, thieving titular character whose only hope for salvation is at the hands of strong, virile Mark Rutland, eagerly embodied by Sean Connery, who blackmails her into marrying him – and makes her enjoy his punishment. Most Marnie enthusiasts answer accusations of misogyny by ducking under the director’s craft, as in “Yeah, Connery plays a sadistic hero – but look at the way Hitch frames the back of Hedren’s head!” – as if the plot needs to be apologized for, swept under the rug.

What neither the feminists nor cinephiles seem to appreciate is that Marnie is one of the greatest bondage and discipline (B&D in sadomasochistic parlance) pics of all time. Artfully disguised as a psychosexual thriller, Hitchcock’s classic is actually kin to The Story of O with Hedren’s O-like Marnie at the sole mercy of Sir Connery’s sexy daddy (think Sir Stephen), reduced to being trapped like a wild animal to be broken and trained, owned and cared for, eventually becoming Rutland’s wife/slave. This ain’t misogyny – it’s erotic art!

She was “always pulling her skirt down over her knees as if there were a national treasure,” Marnie’s lecherous employer-turned-victim Mr. Strutt mutters at the beginning of Hitch’s classic, introducing us to Hedren’s character as a trobbing cock-tease – who, of course, needs to be punished like the naughty little girl she really is deep down inside. Enter Connery’s controlling Master Rutland, immaculately dressed in suit and tie (I love a man in a uniform!), a big bad wolf smile on his face as he eavesdrops on Strutt’s report to the police. Is there any doubt that this is the perfect square-jawed, hairy-chest daddy for the B&D job?

Naturally, though, it’s Marnie who subconsciously seeks out her punishment. After a scene in which she tells her horse, “If you want to bite somebody, bite me,” followed by another in which her forever disapproving mother says Marnie’s blonde hair makes her look like she’s “trying to attract a man,” Marnie goes to rich Daddy Rutland’s company for employment, and perhaps a bit more. As an underling conducts the job interview Master Rutland silently watches Marnie’s every move from a corner in the office, his eyes dancing with that familiar, “I wonder what her bare bottom would look like over my knee” gaze.

Once Marnie is hired she enthusiastically agrees to some overtime at Master Rutland’s mansion/castle, where she glimpses a photo of his pet wildcat. “I trained her,” Rutland offers smugly. “What did you train her to do?” Marnie wonders innocently. “To trust me,” he replies. “Is that all?” she asks. “Well, that’s a great deal…” Rutland answers in his best Sir Stephen-to-O mode. Later, after soothing the regressing-to-childhood
Marnie during a lightning storm, the dominant, aggressive, cocky Rutland makes plans to take her to the racetrack. (“Are you fond of horses?” Marnie questions. “No, not at all.”)

Alas, when wayward Marnie inevitably steals from Rutland he confronts her as she’s out riding, ordering her down from the horse. “You’ll walk back to the stable. I’ll ride,” Master Rutland commands, putting her in her proper submissive place. (“I’m fighting a powerful impulse to beat the hell out of you,” he later adds.)

Thus the slave training has begun. It’s all for Marnie’s sake, of course. “You’re such a tempting little thing…Some other sexual blackmailer would have got his hands on you, and the chances of it being someone as permissive as me are pretty remote,” Rutland proclaims, justifying his ownership. And soon it’s off to a splendid honeymoon cruise, a montage of Master training Marnie in the minutiae of society life, the evening ending in a near rape. “But I do very much want to go to bed,” Rutland implores, dueling with his libido. “No!” Marnie shouts and her nightgown drops to the floor. Immediately Master regrets losing control, wraps her in his bathrobe, kisses her tenderly. (Daddy’s sorry.) But Hitchcock ends the scene on a close up of Marnie’s glazed eyes, and a cut to Rutland’s hot and bothered pupils.

And the training continues back at the mansion/castle. “This is the drill, dear. Wife follows husband to front door,” Master explains, cracking the whip now that he’s got Marnie in bondage (confined to the house like in a “correction facility”), subject to his discipline at a moment’s notice. Fortunately pliable Marnie behaves for the most part, doesn’t attempt to escape. Daddy rewards his little girl with her horse. (Much to the chagrin of Diane Baker’s jealous Lil, who naughtily tells Master, “I’m queer for liars,” then later finds his stash of psychiatric porn lying open on a chair, a book titled Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female.)

Though Marnie may be a slave, she’s not stupid. “You’ve got a pathological fix on a woman who’s not only an admitted criminal but who screams if you go near her. So what about your dreams, daddy dear?” she taunts Rutland. “You’re really dying to play doctor, aren’t you?” And play doctor they do, free-associating until Marnie has a nervous breakdown – only to be comforted by Master (who, naturally, triggered that nervous breakdown). After a long downward spiral that leads to the truth of her childhood trauma – mother was the whore! – Marnie is saved through B&D, finally able to love her manly captor who provides shelter and comfort, smoothes those shiny locks of blonde hair. “Mark, I don’t want to go to jail. I’d rather stay with you,” is Marnie’s last line, her only options. She’s finally discovered happiness in slavery, found freedom in chains.

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