In 1886, the Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing published ``Psychopathia Sexualis," his groundbreaking catalog of sexual disorders. The work shone scientific light for the first time on various fetishes, discussed homosexuality with what was then considered shocking rationality, and coined the words ``sadism" and ``masochism."
You don't need to be a masochist to watch Bret Wood's ``Psychopathia Sexualis," a cinematic dramatization/commentary on Krafft-Ebing's treatise, but it would probably help. Lugubrious to the extreme of unintended comedy, the movie suggests a regional dinner theater production of a late- ' 80s Peter Greenaway film: It's all period costumes, naughty bits, and atonal violin music.
``Psychopathia" skips around both within Krafft-Ebing's case histories and along the book's outer edges, working up an argument that the good doctor (Ted Manson) was earnest but fatally blind to the prejudices of his era. There are peeks into sadistic acts and masochistic ones, harmless fetishes and dangerous practices. There are filthy shadow-puppet shows, 19th-century whores dressed as Marie Antoinette, and blood-sucking onanists. Whips and leather and chickens, oh my! At times, one suspects that ``Psychopathia" has been made for an audience that shares its kinks while shying from any insights into them. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The film paints a hellish picture of life in Krafft-Ebing's sanatorium -- an early lobotomy is a must-look-away moment -- and watches with barely disguised contempt as the doctor tries to ``cure" a young gay man (Daniel Pettrow) with hypnosis. (In reality, Krafft-Ebing's views on homosexuality evolved over the course of his work; in the final edition of ``Psychopathia Sexualis," he considered it no longer a ``perversion" but simply a manifestation of sexual desire.)
In the film's final third, Wood dramatizes the book's various female troubles -- ``menopausal insanity" and such . The doctor's view that ``woman is passive . . . if properly educated, she has very little sexual yearning" is hung out to dry in a long narrative thread concerning a governess (Lisa Paulsen) and her charge (Veronika Duerr ), whose feelings for each other build to volcanic proportions. This is the only section of the film that doesn't feel studied to death.
The Atlanta-based Wood aims for unsettling eroticism delivered in period style -- lots of candles, silent-era camera moves , and intertitles. Much of ``Psychopathia Sexualis" might even work with better actors, but with the notable exception of Paulsen the local players the director has tapped fail him. The overriding sense is of a History Channel re enactment that has been hijacked by heavy-breathing post-graduates. The idea that sex might be funny -- or even fun -- seems never to have occurred to anyone here.
Note for completists: Back in the mid-1980s, the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb illustrated a number of case histories from ``Psychopathia Sexualis" in a brilliantly sustained piece of comic art that balanced clinical objectivity with a muted sympathy for the depraved and the confused. Nothing in Wood's film has the impact of even one of Crumb's panels.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.