Time for another installment of Spotlight, an occasional series in which I shine the light on books that I love. This time around, I’m looking at a decadent and thoroughly debauched story / photo collection by the brilliant fashion photographer, Ellen von Unwerth. It’s called Revenge, and it’s the prettiest, most artistic piece of soft-core pornography that I’ve ever come across.
I need to preface this post by admitting that I’ve been wanting to spotlight Revenge for ages but held off because it isn’t that easy to find, and the copies that are out there tend to be fairly expensive. I bought it on a lark when it first came out in 2003. I had no idea that my first edition was one of only 10,000. That said, I was flipping through it the other day, and was struck again by how…well, striking it is, so I decided to go ahead and run with the post and hope that anyone interested in getting a copy has some good luck or a generous Santa. xx.M
Let’s begin with the premise, because the premise says it all. An evil Baroness, (yes, I know…), takes her step-sister’s daughters and nieces in after a terrible cable-car crash devastates the family, (yes, I know…). Little does anyone know, but the Baroness is plagued by her late husband’s debts and has been forced to let most of her household staff go. All she has left is a nameless stable boy, a chauffeur named Eric, and three pouty sadistic maids.
So, the Baroness takes in the lovely young naifs, (eight in total, all legal yet beguiling in her own way), off her step-sister’s hands, but little does anyone know that these poor, poor, poor young women will be “forced to earn their keep” and take up the roles left vacant by the chateau’s departed staff. As you can imagine, a certain amount of discipline is required, much to the girls’ dismay. But the girls are resourceful, and not nearly so innocent as the
Baroness assumes. Despite setbacks and misadventures, they manage to turn the tables in the end.
Revenge is the photographic retelling of the girls’ misadventures during their stay with the Baroness. As the premise implies, it’s an unabashedly over-the-top BDSM fantasy. The whole thing reads like an elaborately choreographed scene. In fact, I could almost believe this whole scenario going down during a long week-end at a private play party.
The book is signature von Unwerth – gorgeously sexual and fantastically staged. But within the staging and premise, the models are given a remarkable amount of freedom to act and react naturally. That’s what keeps it from straying into a sort of vacant, cynical exercise. It’s obvious that everyone is having a genuinely good time. While there is no doubt that this is a photo-shoot and that von Unwerth has a firm hand on every frame and angle, everyone’s hamming it up, and that’s charming. There’s no way to take the situation terribly seriously, so they don’t. The models pout and grimace and sneer like pretty, X-rated cartoons, and engage the “story” with a gusto that I find totally and joyfully infectious.
As with much of her work, Ellen von Unwerth’s photographs feel like throwbacks to Weimar Berlin. The grainy, black and white images starkly highlight the girls’ pale skin, dark lips and glossy hair as they are forced to chop wood in stiletto heels and scrub floors in artistically tattered thigh highs. In fact, the entire book feels like what would happen if Vogue decided to run a unapologetically explicit sex issue. I almost never find anything this staged to be sexy at all, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it is, but something about the book’s tongue-in-cheek, winking quality turns my head every time.
It’s that charm, more than anything, that turned me on when I first found Revenge nearly eleven years ago. On the surface, there’s a lot to get caught up in – a flagrantly abusive Baroness and her tool of a chauffeur, the lovely clutch of suffering nymphs, a trio of sly, sadistic, barely clothed maids – but beneath the sex-drenched premise and the glamor of von Unwerth’s images, the reality seemed to be that a bunch of people were getting a kick out of acting out a fabulously over-the-top fantasy, complete with crops, iron cuffs and pretty, black masks. That’s what made it impossible for me to put down.
What little text there is winks at novels like The Story of O and many of Anais Nin’s short stories, while never delving deeply into the potential psychology of the situation. This is one, very rare example of something that I think is sexy because it skates the surface of a fantasy without going deeper or darker than it has to. Forexample, the girls, who have “immaculate manners,” write the Baroness a thank you note after they liberate themselves from the chateau and leave their evil aunt in a compromising position in the village square.
Ridiculous. And yet…I kind of love the entire idea of that note, and of their aunt receiving her just desserts at the hands of outraged peasants who’ve been primed by rumors of her wicked ways. The fact that there is almost no story is actually one of the book’s strengths. The premise remains a premise, undeveloped and whole unto itself. Normally, I hate this. But I love it in Revenge.
I stumbled over Revenge when I was only just beginning to get a sense of my kinky side. I didn’t know much about BDSM then and, while I enjoyed sex, (a lot), I wasn’t consuming a lot of explicitly sexual material. I was still trying very hard to be my mother’s very normal, very good girl. But I couldn’t ignore this book or it’s arch, in-your-face sexuality. It was delicious and wicked and beautiful. It turned me on in so many ways, and I couldn’t put it down. It became one of those tiny bits of media that my sexuality latched onto. Something deep inside of me said, this is okay. This is good. It’s okay to want things that aren’t “safe.”
I’m honestly not sure I’d love it nearly so much if I hadn’t stumbled over it at such a pivotal point in my own sexual development. I might just have dismissed it as really pretty soft-core porn, or flipped through it and put it back on the shelf without paying what was then more than I could afford for a single book. But I did stumble over it at a pivotal time, and it tapped something inside of me like a tuning fork. It literally turned something inside me on. I didn’t know then whether I wanted to be the Baroness or one of her poor, put-upon nieces. All I knew was that I wanted to be in that book, and that was a revelation to me.