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By Rogan Marshall | April 19, 2004

This documentary explores the subculture surrounding sadomasochism, and related alternative sexual practices, through a large number of interviews, eliciting comments from fetishists of every description, some of whom are professionals. (Among them one will recognize a fistful of porn stars (if one watches lots of porn, anyway).) A heavily edited barrage of soundbytes reduces individual interviews to a carefully structured roundtable discussion. The subjects are mostly attractive, universally friendly, even flirtatious; while they talk about things like sexualized piercing, rape fantasies, and sex play involving electrical shock, they tend to giggle and blush, like schoolgirls.
Maybe it’s unexpected to find this material so thoroughly infused with this strange, childlike joy. But maybe it’s the filmmaker’s intent to mine this vein of pleasant if casual decadence, as his beautifully edited movie sways along a suave spiral that bears unmistakable resemblance to well-rehearsed sexual seduction. This narrative motion cautiously proceeds by darkening stages to places that will turn few people on. But even in its early, friendlier stretches, “Beyond Vanilla” rarely if ever stoops to prurience; perhaps this is laudable. Not to say that you don’t see some pretty outrageous sexual activity full on, but only in glimpses, little pieces relatively easy to digest, which is nice, because a lot of it is stuff hardly anyone really wants to see, even at the remove a television can provide. As one interviewee points out, “all sex sounds grotesque when spoken about without experience;” said discussion I suppose includes watching said activities, and while this movie has the balls to show us what the folks in it are talking about, it also has the taste to focus on the words of its subjects, rather then the acts and activities they discuss. For a while I thought it was remarkable how articulate these folks all seem to be – every one of them is good at explaining exactly what they’re thinking, every sentence they speak hangs together properly – and then I realized that, if you get your kicks the way these people do, you have to be really, really good at explaining exactly what you mean…
“Beyond Vanilla” strikes some very careful balances, and, while one is not likely to need the term BDSM defined if one is already watching this picture, it’s nice that the movie bothers to do so. Neophytes will also receive basic beginner’s instruction, on various topics, from various, sometimes startling sources – I, for one, find my response unquantifiable, when a frumpish matronly woman explains to me the best way to use a cane on someone’s a*s. Mondo lovers will find some truly ghastly “real sex” footage here (no, I won’t talk about it anymore – please stop asking, you’re making me uncomfortable – can we move on to another subject?). And aside from these concerns – pressing indeed though they may be for connoisseurs of underground film – this is an intelligent, careful, absorbing, and memorable documentary, even, I could say, impassioned, which explores an oft-ignored subject in a most decisive and, um, penetrating fashion.

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