by Rich Moreland, March 2015
Atop the long dining room table, a masked Emma Marx is crawling toward Mr. Frederick seated at the opposite end. In front of his place setting is a bowl of milk. Emma laps away like a pet.
The scene quickly shifts to a bedroom. Emma is bound to the headboard with Mr. Frederick behind her, caressing and fondling his submissive.
Emma explains. “Mr Frederick and I role-play a variety of different scenarios all the time. Is there any room to blur that line between fantasy and reality?”
Early in the film Emma mentions “normal” in describing the difference between her sexuality and her sister Nadia’s. But there are gradations of “normal” that for Emma become tests of her willingness to break barriers and abandon shame to find out who she really is. Questions remain. Does self-discovery mean extending her vulnerability beyond the safety of her dominant-submissive relationship with Mr. Frederick? And, how do blurred lines between fantasy and reality redefine “normal?”
A bit of tension rises. Emma is indeed special, Mr. Frederick implies, because her sexuality excites him. He tells her she is always evolving, there is “no stopping point” in her sexual growth. Though Emma admits doing things that titillate her, she insists an exit strategy always exists if the pressure to overstep boundaries intensifies. After all, it’s part of the contract.
Seductively, he pushes forward. “There ‘s room to play.” Steeped in uncertainty, she replies, “I don’t want to play.” He kisses her. “Sure you do.”
Does Emma push into new horizons or retreat to Nadia’s lines in the sand?
Whatever her decision, the central theme of Boundaries shifts to trust. Emma learns that “normal” is fluid, what was “bizarre” yesterday, is just another talking point today. Her willingness to give up control while contradictorily retaining it throws obstacles in her path that will challenge her self-esteem. How Emma perceives her connections with Mr. Frederick and how subsequent events feed into her overactive imagination provide valuable lessons in trust.
As a result of her confessed fantasy about Shane, Emma is instructed to play a game of seduction with her co-worker by writing him notes. It has a sophomoric overtone that creates a degree of embarrassment for Emma. To get her instructions, she must report to Mr. Frederick’s second floor office because he dictates each message. After writing a final provocative note, Emma descends the stairs. Without warning, she says, “something unexpected happened, shaking me to the core.”
A girl named Audrina (Sara Luvv) is waiting to see Mr. Frederick.
“Audrina was his first real sub who ended the relationship when the lifestyle became too complicated for her,” Emma remembers. “Why was she here? She said he was expecting her. He never told me how beautiful she was, feminine and wholesome, the perfect physical embodiment of a sub.”
Brushing aside Shane’s now predictable interest in her, Emma decides to investigate. She goes back upstairs and quietly turns toward Mr. Frederick’s office. Incidentally, down the hall opposite from his office is a closed door with a green covering. Thoughts of Behind the Green Door, the Michell Brothers 1970s film about a naïve girl who is introduced into a BDSM sex club, are inescapable. Emma ignores it; she’s already been there and knows Audrina has also.
As she approaches, Emma sees Mr. Frederick talking with his old sub; neither of them notices her. Admitting that she “filled in answers where there were gaps,” Emma envisions them at play in cinematic flashes that are classic Eddie Powell. Thus, Emma’s imagination becomes the demon that possesses her. She confesses it “began to poison me with pictures and images and experiences that I created between them.”
Emma Marx represents the literary everyman/everywoman who suffers from anxiety, doubt, and irrationality. Emotional reasoning is not an intellectual argument and she knows the difference, but her fears and weaknesses take over. Emma confesses the images were “so vivid and raw and painful that I began to treat them as truth.”
So the downward spiral that St. James poignantly captures in the bathtub scene begins. Covered in beads of water, a desperate Emma sits alone trying to cleanse her thoughts while sinking deeper into despair. She is like a heroin addict trying to wash away the drug that torments her or an anguished soul crushed by suicidal thoughts.
Eddie Powell’s camera work in canvassing Emma’s agony is superb.
A word here is due about Penny Pax. Her emotional angst in this scene is as real as it gets, reflecting acting skills that place her on the door step of mainstream Hollywood.
A chasm now separates Emma and Mr. Frederick. They have ceased communicate and he becomes emotionally distant. Emma accepts the blame. “The more worried I became, the more I failed him.”
The tension thickens. He begins to ignore her in a passive-aggressive manner. “It was a form of silent treatment,” Emma says, that increased her pain.
After refusing to sleep with her, Mr. Frederick passes a forlorn Emma in the hallway and takes that dogleg, vanishing.
Teetering on the abyss, Emma at last faces her self-created emotional morass. “I realized I had fallen into a masochistic relationship with myself, one that I desperately wanted out of.”
When Mr. Frederick disappears for periods of time, she says, “I was convinced I’d lost him.”
Excuse Me for Trying
A visit with her sister is in order.
Of course, with Nadia it’s all about her. As Emma sits politely, Nadia arranges fake flowers and announces that she is pregnant: conventional happiness in a conventional relationship. Emma’s emotions are muted and distant.
But an epiphany is in the offing.
An annoyed Nadia wants to be congratulated, instead Emma brings up her sister’s concern over Ray’s sexual suggestions. Without meaning to offend, she mildly jokes, “Is this what he meant by having a three-some?”
“Very funny, Emma. When people are having problems with their relationship they do whatever they can to fix it. Guess what? I did, so excuse me for trying!”
Nadia resorts to the oldest of maneuvers, pregnancy. A new arrival will always gloss over problems and solidify an unsteady marriage, right?
A bystander in Nadia’s universe, Emma gives her sister credit for gumption and resolves she must likewise act. This is the moment the film has been waiting for. Emma’s growth is in her hands, not Mr. Frederick’s. Only she can solve her inner turmoil.
“I needed to fight for the only thing that ever made sense to me.”
There is a lot more to come in this film. Emma secretly follows Mr. Frederick to a duplex where she discovers a BDSM dungeon, a reticent Shane stills flirts a bit with a woman he really likes, and a pendant embossed with a “W” becomes a territorial marker of striking intimacy. Personal arrangements become fluid and Emma takes further steps in expanding her sexual universe.
By the way, there is one more sex scene and it is dynamic. Jacky St. James and Eddie Powell bulldoze their own boundaries to reinterpret what an erotic movie can do. Without giving away details of the scene, suffice it to say that a St. James trademark shows up again: candles. There are two sets of three, one for Emma and one for Nadia, whose role in this film is to act as its Greek Chorus. If Mr. Frederick is a guide for Emma, so is Nadia in her own unintended way. But the final actions and decisions are not those of Emma’s lover or her sister, and that is the magic of The Submission of Emma Marx: Boundaries.
Blurred, Pushed, and Crossed
Too often erotic movies designed for couples celebrate the romance and not the relationship, the exploration and not the day-to-day task of being a partner. As a result, the genre unfortunately discounts the emotional unfolding that redefines a relationship as it develops.
Boundaries gives the viewer two versions of certitude. First there is Nadia: manipulation disguised as taking a standing. Men are deceiving at worse and filled with tomfoolery at best. She has to one-up them to keep control.
The inescapable question is why she waits three months to reveal her pregnancy. Did she have that three-way Ray touted? Unlikely, but we don’t know. We only have her tasteless vegan food and her fake flowers.
Then there is Emma. Trust and control are interwoven into the same exploratory fabric and, as a mother would test her baby, Emma must throw herself into the water and survive. The proud submissive becomes empowered by giving up control, though her teacher and lover is never far away.
The story is not quite that simple, of course. Boundaries hints of a delicate freedom that is as alternative as Emma’s lifestyle. St. James places appropriate prints of butterflies in Emma’s bedroom, reminders of a more innocent sexual age when a blind man sang, “Butterflies are free.”
But this psychedelic version of freedom is fragility. Psychologist Erich Fromm posits freedom’s contradictions in his book “Escape from Freedom.” To be free is not always desirable and a return to control guarantees a security that negates escape. On the other hand, when escape is replaced with an openness to seek and develop positive relationships, growth occurs.
Is Emma completing the circle from fragility to empowerment?
Is she capable of moving forward without Mr. Frederick or can she only expand her world with his support?
We’ll depart with Emma’s words.
“Some people prefer the security and comfort of doing only what is expected . . . and that’s ok. But for others, boundaries are meant to be blurred, pushed, and crossed because . . . life isn’t about being comfortable, it’s about being free.”
But is that really the case?
Watch this thought-provoking and groundbreaking film and see for yourself.
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A final thought about this film. Boundaries is a notable achievement because it explores adult film as literature. A complex story is told through a voice over with Emma as narrator. But actual voice is that of a trained actress: Jacky St. James. Clearly, the director wants to make sure all words are precisely placed so that the story challenges the thoughtful mind.
Boundaries is indeed literary and worthy of praise for that feat alone. However, I’m not sure the ending is as neatly packaged as it seems . . . and that is the mark of an intriguing script and superb directing.