I admit it: I found Psychopathia Sexualis on Netflix quite some time ago and was intrigued by the concept. And the possibility of sex scenes and nudity. An avid fan of Dan Savage, I smiled at the thought of a film that took historical perceptions of sexual deviancy to task, in part because it’s a subject that still needs to be broached to purge the notion of shame in sex. So when I actually watched it, I was going in two-fold: the history and the boobs. I found myself upset by the end of it, but not for reasons of being let down by the presentation of the material.
The film had its ups and downs. It was beautifully photographed and scored. The use of color, from rich jewel tones to musty earthen backgrounds, helped make it visually appealing. The score was haunting and pitch-perfect. The acting, on the other hand, was a bit stiff and over-wrought at times, though this was not a factor that destroyed the film for me. I wasn’t even upset by the lack of graphic on-screen sex. I can respect the film that doesn’t always go for the cheap shots. As fun as nudity is, we don’t always need the extreme to have a good time.
To this effect, many reviews out there lament that the film isn’t sexy enough, or that it made sex boring; however, that’s missing the point of the film and the book upon which it was based. The book is a medical text written by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, mentor to Freud. The book chronicled what was considered medical condition at the time, and wasn’t meant to view the acts described as sexy; the book was intended to document, learn from and treat Victorian notions of sexual deviancy (basically, any version of sex outside of procreation). The film merely presented the contents of the book and dramatized it, a way of peering into the accepted medical fact of the past. The film doesn’t want to show you two people fucking; it wants to get you thinking about the mindframe of the time in which it was written.
To this end, Psychopathia Sexualis did not take the text verbatim. Rather than demonstrating the thought of the author, it visually displayed truths we now know to accompany the text: men and women were physically abused and subjected to barbaric treatments in the name of curing behavior and/or illness; women were sexually assaulted in asylums; a doctor could go to an employer with health information and use that information to get a patient fired. In essence, it condemns the dated text by quoting from it, then displaying a contradictory, modern fact-based visual. We see at one point a woman about to be assaulted at night in an asylum while the voiceover proclaims that many women claim to be violated by demons at night. History tells us that these women weren’t imagining this; they were being raped and then told that they were crazy. The film points this out without having to lift a finger.
Between the juxtaposition of antiquated medical text and visual acknowledgment of modern fact, this film brings the uncomfortable realization that the book upon which it’s based was used to classify and “treat” people for so-called deviant behaviors, while begging a further question: how far off from this text are we now? Let’s review the Victorian sexual practices we learn from this film:
Sex is purely for making babies. You shouldn’t want to have sex unless if you want babies.
If you’re a woman, your sex drive should be pretty much nil if you’re of good breeding and sound mind.
If you make a fuss, we’ll send you to the sanitorium to get better.
Don’t masturbate because it’s bad and could make you into a bad person.
All fetishes are bad. Anyone that suffers from one is going to hurt other people.
- Homosexuality is bad, but fear not – we can find a cure!
Sound familiar? We’re getting more studies about the failure of conversion therapy, more pressure to teach abstinence-only sex ed in schools, and a media circus when a public figure has a piece of personal sexual preference revealed. Kink is still trying to make its way into mainstream conversation without being a joke or embarrassment at the same time when gay rights are forging ahead. This film wrapped principle photography in January 2005, when the fight for marriage equality was ramping up and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still in effect. Platforms espoused in the book are visually frowned upon, ever so slightly, in this film. That’s not coincidence, that’s subtle criticism.
What does the film want us to feel? It makes me want to let kinky people be kinky (unless if it’s harming another person and/or animal). You want to suck some blood? Find yourself a partner on the internet and go forth. It makes me want Xavier to find his ideal bear and embrace who he is. It makes me want Annabelle and Lydia to have two kids, a dog and a nice house in the suburbs. I don’t like the thinking in the book. That’s what upset me. I looked around at the world and saw that we still have a long way to go. We can point and laugh at how dated the thinking of the text book was and is, but the hard fact is that it still occurs today. Was it the best film? Nope, not by a long shot. But we still need a film like this to point out that it still happens, that it’s hypocritical, and that it needs to change. Be the happy ending you want everyone else to have in this film.