After waiting way too long, I finally rented Bret Wood’s film Psychopathia Sexualis. It’s definitely an odd film, but worth seeing in studying our history of sexuality. Psychopathia Sexualis was a very important book in the evolution of sexuality in general and kink in particular, the first book to put the words “sadism” and “masochism” together.
Wood’s film is a set of interconnected vignettes, dramatizing the case studies Krafft-Ebing collected as well as inferred scenes. They’re shot in a style intended to suggest the early days of silent film, as if some German expressionist had tried to make a film version in the 1920s.
Wood understands the complexity and ambiguity of kink sexuality. In the opening scene, a woman in a bedroom prays for forgiveness, then scrambles into bed when a man approaches. She watches as he undresses, then picks up a straight razor and slashes his own arm. She lunges out of bed, grabs his arm and starts sucking his bleeding wound. So, who is on top in this scenario? Who is the subject of desire, and the object? Who is the sadist and the masochist?
Other scenes illustrate sadism, masochism, homosexuality, lesbianism, and even necrophilia, in an eerie shadow puppet show. The case studies constitute a kind of literary genre in themselves, so it makes sense that they would be dramatized into little playlets.
My impression of Krafft-Ebing and his work is strongly influenced by Stephen Oosterhuis’ Stepchildren of Nature (discussed previously.) That book emphasized there was a complex interplay between the “deviants” and “urnings” and the legal/medical authorities, and that Krafft-Ebing himself grew to be sympathetic to the people he wrote about.
Wood’s film doesn’t go into this, but he does understand that this entire project was ultimately about power. The book came out when the practice of psychology was relatively new, and psychologists had little social power. Increased surveillance brought about increased awareness of sexual behavior, and the need to categorize and control. There’s a sequence set in a sanitorium where the tender mercies of 19th century medical treatment may not cure a man of his deviant sexual desires, but it does turn him into a compliant snitch.
My favorite scene is a Duchess who wants to live out her masochistic desires, being beaten by “brutal, uneducated female warders”, and talks her doctor into having her committed, after a considerable donation. Her doctor agrees, but requests that she make an effort to change, and that her stay not be just “indulgence.” Her grace makes no definite answer.
This is exactly the kind of ambiguity we saw in the religious era of kink, when there was recurring ambivalence and ambiguity about mortification of the flesh. Was it getting in touch with God via emulating the suffering of Christ, or was it mere self-indulgence of the body? There never was an answer, and that confusion, that Necker cube of human experience, is what makes kink possible.
I wish Wood had dramatized the case study of the woman who fantasized of being a black male slave, but that’s just a personal thing.
Psychopathia Sexualis reminded me of Louise J. Kaplan’s Female Perversions (which I’m almost finished reading), or rather the film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton. Both are film dramatizations of works that are supposed to be clinical studies of sex, but can’t help slipping into storytelling, so it’s unsurprising that the film versions move even further back to storytelling. After all, humans are storytelling animals.
Wood’s film is not a standard movie. It isn’t a documentary with narrative elements, like Writer of O, nor is it a narrative film based on true events, or a narrative film in the usual sense. It’s perhaps a kind of fable, Grimm’s fairytales or Struwwelpeter for the dawn of the twentieth century and the age of science. Like pre-Disney fables and fairy tales, they have their own eerie dream logic. It’s hard to compare Psychopathia Sexualis to anything else I’ve seen, but on its own terms it’s worth seeing if you have any interest in this subject.