Saturday, May 17, 2014

Psychopathia Sexualis

Directed by Bret Wood 

Starring:  Ted Manson,
Daniel May,
Jane Bass,
Daniel Pettrow,
Kristi Casey,
Lisa Paulsen,
Veronika Duerr,
Rachel Sorsa  

Release: 2006 

Length: 98 minutes 

Richard von Krafft-Ebing was a German psychiatrist who spent the first years of his career working in asylums. Eventually he became disillusioned with the institutional approach and switched his focus to education, becoming a professor of psychiatry at the Universities of Strasbourg, Graz and Vienna. 

Although he published numerous articles throughout his life, Krafft-Ebing is best known for the book, "Psychopathia Sexualis" (Psychopathy of Sex), which was first published in 1886 and eventually became an international best seller.  

“Psychopathia Sexualis” was actually Krafft-Ebing's second book.   His first, "A Textbook of Insanity", was published in 1879 and contained an elaborate system for categorizing mental diseases that earned him a reputation as a masterful classifier.   

Though Krafft-Ebing is best known for beginning the study of sexual behavior, his work in psychiatry, criminology, and forensic psychopathology also helped advance psychology as a clinical science. He was also a forensic psychologist who investigated the legal and genetic aspects of criminal behavior and was often consulted by the courts as an expert witness. 

“Psychopathia Sexualis” is widely regarded as the first modern pornographic book and is particularly notable because it was written intentionally as medical science. Krafft-Ebing went to great lengths to describe the technical terms in Latin and was successful in transforming what many would consider an interest in sexual deviance into scientific inquiry and compassion. The extensive catalog of sexual positions and non-procreative sexual activities identified names and descriptions for acts that were considered unspeakable, sinful and criminal. His work re-named these behaviors as “sexual perversions” and influenced recognition of Sexology as a new branch in the study of psychiatry. Krafft-Ebing also coined the terms "heterosexual", "fetishism", "exhibitionism, "sadism" and "masochism".

Krafft-Ebing coined the word "masochist" from the sexual desires of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, a well-known novelist of the time who was said to enjoy being humiliated by women.  In 1869, Sacher-Masoch wrote "Venus in Furs", a novel about a man with strong masochistic desires, including the desire to be whipped by a woman while her body is adorned in fur.  

Many of Krafft-Ebing’s ideas were shadowed for years after Freud shifted the view of homosexuality to be defined as a psychological problem. The Catholic Church was also disturbed by Krafft’s attempts to draw a connection between sanctity and martyrdom with masochism and many found his research morally offensive at the time. Despite the controversial nature of his work, Krafft-Ebing pioneered an approach to exploring and classifying sexuality that was accepting and sympathetic.  

So what does all of this have to do with a movie review? Writer and Film Director Bret Wood attempted to bring to life Krafft-Ebing's notorious and groundbreaking taxonomy of sexual variation. In his 2006 movie “Psychopathia Sexualis” Wood depicts sadomasochistic rituals, vampirism, same-sex attraction, lust murder and fetishism through a series of dramatizations.  Krafft-Ebing is played by Ted Manson and we see him interviewing patients, dissecting corpses and attempting to diagnose what he believes are mental and sexual disorders.

The book “Psychopathia Sexualis” had 238 case histories. This left Brent Wood with the unenviable task of choosing a dozen or so for his movie version of the book. He chooses to include the sort of sexually deviant material that made Krafft-Ebing's book well-read and notorious. There’s the case of the French sex killer Emile Fourquet (Patrick Parker). There's the tale of Jonathan (Daniel May), a proper young man of some means who develops a blood fixation and abuses the family maid until his mother (Jane Bass) has him committed.  

There is the case of a famous episode of necrophilia (a sexual fetish characterized by a sexual attraction to corpses) from Krafft-Ebing's book. It is recalled by puppeteer Caglios (Rob Nixon) in a command performance staged for a rich baron (Greg Thompson).  

There's the story of a young gay man (Daniel Pettrow) whom Krafft-Ebing tries to “cure” of his homosexual desires with hypnosis.
And there is the long narrative thread where the Governess Lydia (Lisa Paulsen), a long-repressed lesbian tutor whose desires are awakened by young student Annabel (Veronika Duerr).  Krafft-Ebing believed that "woman is passive . . . if properly educated, she has very little sexual yearning". Lydia would rather spend her life alone than give in to her urges, even when her new charge, Annabel Lindstrom, reciprocates enthusiastically.   

What about Femdom? The movie depicts the Femdom tale of an aristocratic gentleman who likes to be trampled by scantily clad prostitutes. I call this a Femdom scene based on what we know today about the male desire for female domination. However, Krafft-Ebing classified this as male masochism and believed it was an abnormal sexual desire. Interesting enough, Krafft-Ebing saw women as basically sexually passive, and recorded no female sadists or fetishists in his case studies. Behavior that would be classified as masochism in men was categorized as "sexual bondage" in women. 

So what are we to think about a highly regarded psychiatrist who believed that women did not enjoy sex? Time, education and the advancements in the field of psychiatry has proven Krafft-Ebing wrong in many of his diagnosis, including homosexuality and the male desire for female domination.  

To his credit, Krafft-Ebing was sincere in his pursuit to understand the correlation between the human mind and the human sex drive. Perversion can exist if the human mind is not sane. However, Krafft-Ebing had tunnel vision and he saw through the glass darkly. His research was flawed by categorizing genuine expressions of sexuality (such as Femdom) along side actual acts of perversion (such as necrophilia).  

Be that as it may, Bret Wood was intrigued by the fact that many people read Krafft-Ebing's book "Psychopathia Sexualis" not because they wanted to learn about mental illness. People of his day read his book because it was full of actual cases of sexual deviance. The Science community believed it to be a groundbreaking and important book but the general population read it for its shock value. Wood thought perhaps a 2006 audience would view it the same way.  

Despite this film's low budget, Wood's images are evocative. Wood seems fascinated by Krafft-Ebing's efforts to scientifically dissect and categorize the vagaries of carnal desire, but his larger point is elusive. There is some titillating imagery among the Victorian corsets and knickers in this erratic film. However, this is not an erotic film.  

There are scenes that are not for the squeamish, and I don’t mean that in a good S&M way. Stories of serial killers, psychopaths, male sadists who want to injure women and fringe fetishes (such as the man who pays a prostitute to stomp a chicken to death in front of him) are not a good mix with tales of forbidden yet erotic desires (Femdom, Lesbianism, etc). And that is the problem with both Krafft-Ebing's research and with Wood's film. Perhaps one or more of these stories would make an interesting movie in and of itself, but as a series of dramatizations, as seen through the eyes and analysis of Krafft-Ebing, the movie comes up short.  

For the readers of my blog, the best chapter in the film (Chapter 6 on the DVD) is the section on Masochism. Here you will witness a very brief scene of a woman whipping a man, emasculating him through what we today would call pony play, and trampling him by standing on his humbled body (the prostitute looking disinterested the entire time, playing to Krafft-Ebing's analysis that all women are passive and have no interest in such activities but are merely doing it for money).

This leads to the dramatization where three prostitutes at a brothel play out a fantasy scenario for a paying male client who desires to be dominated. The experienced prostitute admonishes the novice prostitute, “Follow my lead and don’t look at him, don’t say a word. And for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t laugh”. (Again playing to the theme that women could not possibly enjoy dominating and controlling a man.)  

Once the male client is lying on the floor, eyes closed, the two women circle him (wearing corsets, fishnet stockings and ankle high leather boots) then proceed to stand on him, one at time and then both together, until he rings a bell to signify his unspoken safe word.

Next enters the third prostitute, dressed like Marie Antoinette in a wig, white corset, white boots and wearing a mask. The other women leave the room while the Antoinette figure begins to whip the male client with a dozen long-stem roses until he uses his safe signal by ringing his bell.
You might find this scene to be erotic but I doubt it. The client is made out to be a weirdo (and I might add a wimp since he rings his bell before his session has the chance to get interesting). Perhaps this Krafft-Ebing case study was undeniably of a peculiar man but I wonder what would Krafft-Ebing think today were he to browse the internet, where thousands of women are making a living offering professional domination be it over the phone or in person. Would he view the innumerable male clients of these women as all being worthy of his book? Imagine that, an immeasurable number of men just like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch? 

And what would he say of all of us dominant women that achieve sexual arousal and wet pussies when we are sexually dominating the men in our lives? Would he still hold to the belief that women are passive and have little interest in sex? 

I know I should not be too hard on Richard von Krafft-Ebing because he was living in a different time and in a different society. He was sincere in his research and he did groundbreaking work in the area of forensic psychology. He attempted to diagnose some very difficult and in some cases quite disturbing sexual acts. Freud was wrong in many of his theories as well but his work was still highly influential. The same can be said for Krafft-Ebing.
So what is my overall opinion of Bret Wood's attempt to make “Psychopathia Sexualis” into a film? I must confess that I found it to be a fascinating film to watch. I would not classify it as erotic or entertaining but it kept my attention for the nearly 100 minutes.  

It really comes down to your motivation for watching this film. If you want to be entertained or if you want to have your D&S senses aroused, you will be disappointed. However, if you are seeking an educational experience, to view fetishes through the mind of the famous Richard von Krafft-Ebing, you will probably find this film worthy of your time. For me, it's a split decision.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars


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