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Reviews

Sick

Jeremy Clarke

The life and death of Bob Flanagan, supermasochist
Directed by  Kirby Dick
Certificate 18, 89 minutes, DVD

With supermarket bookshelves full of monochrome paperbacks with titles like Degrees of Light Black, the 'If you liked Shades of Grey…' bandwagon is continuing at a whip-cracking pace, and violent sexual practices are the surprising all-purpose marketting hook of the year. Now two old films have been released on DVD which were previously refused certification without extensive cuts. The BBFC's current attitude is that UK over-18s should be allowed to watch whatever they choose so long as its legal.

One is a 1976 French film, Maîtresse about a young Gerard Depardieu's relationship with a professional dominatrix. Sick, in contrast, is a 1997 US documentary about a submissive man married to a dominatrix. The late Bob Flanagan was an artist and a cystic fibrosis sufferer who, together with Sheree Rose, used masochistic practices to manage the pain caused by his disease. These experiences he then expressed in his art, much of it performance based. It offers an interesting angle on old questions what is right and wrong, permissible and beneficial, in a sexual context.

As the title implies, Bob's death hangs over the film and its closing ten minutes document his dying. In a culture where anything of a sexual nature between consenting adults is permissible but where death is largely taboo, some of the explicit sexual material - and there's a lot more of it in Sick than in Maîtresse - is tough to watch, but his dying is tough viewing of a different order. If sexual predilections were once the most private part of our culture, and illness and death were universally accepted facts of life, things are now the other way round.

One fascinating scene when the couple are staying in a hotel for Bob's specialist treatment includes a hotel employee praying spontaneously, with their knowledge, that God will heal. Sheree comments afterwards - and out of the woman's earshot - that this was a nice gesture, but she was talking to someone who probably isn't there. And yet their relationship, whatever its submissive/dominant sexual expression, is characterised by such love and caring and grief, that it demonstrates that whether or not we believe in God, God's image is stamped irrevocably upon us.

This raises another painful question though: if we are really made by God, how could he or she inflict a medical condition like cystic fibrosis on someone? It's an issue that believers and others have grappled with for centuries. What is certainly true is that, on the evidence of this film, what the afflicted Bob and his partner achieved under that condition - a caring relationship and a broadcasting of that possibility to the wider world through art - is a remarkable achievement, a pearl of great price.

Jeremy Clarke