Movie review: 'Psychopathia Sexualis'

2½ stars (out of four)

"Psychopathia Sexualis" is an independent American art film that seems to be masquerading as Victorian-era pornography--and it's not quite as interesting or provocative as that description might make it sound.

Writer-director Bret Wood bases his movie on the celebrated case histories recorded by Prof. Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his hot 19th Century academic tomes "Psychopathia Sexualis" and "Text-Book of Insanity." Staging several of the professor's steamy accounts, he adds bits of others, linking it all together with scenes involving Krafft-Ebing (Ted Manson) and his patients.

The case histories include the sort of sexually deviant material that made Krafft-Ebing's book well-read and notorious. There's the tale of J.H. (Daniel May), a sheltered young man with a taste for blood. Xavier (Daniel Pettrow) is a young homosexual who resists being "cured" until he meets the doctor. A famous episode of necrophilia from Krafft-Ebing's book is recalled by puppeteer Caglios (Rob Nixon) in a command performance staged for a rich baron (Greg Thompson). The last of the long episodes showcases Lydia (Lisa Paulsen), a long-repressed lesbian tutor whose desires are awakened by student Annabel (Veronika Duerr).

Wood has a strong, atmospheric visual style--something abundantly displayed in his work as editor, graphic artist and producer on the excellent Kino silent-movie DVD sets devoted to German expressionist masters F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, as well as American greats D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim. "Psychopathia," shot to look like a talkie color version of something noirish by Lang or Murnau, is as good-looking a film as its minimal budget allows. (There's even a fine silhouette-play sequence that is obviously inspired by classic German animator Lotte Reiniger.) But the acting is often weak or overly florid, and the overall mood sometimes feverish and silly. Much of the film suggests pornography that doesn't really turn you on.

One of Wood's main points is that Krafft-Ebing, however progressive his intentions, fails modern standards because he regarded homosexuality as a curable disease--even though he was an advocate of decriminalizing it. But it's hard to critique Krafft-Ebing, when you're primarily using his case histories and not his life. Perhaps this movie would have been more powerful if it had been a "Kinsey"-style bio of the controversial doctor rather than a campy dramatization of his patients' sex lives--or if it simply had more humor.

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'Psychopathia Sexualis'

Directed and written by Bret Wood; adapted from "Psychopathia Sexualis" and "Text-Book of Insanity" by Richard von Krafft-Ebing; photographed by David Bruckner; edited by Craig Tollis, Wood; puppetry by Jason Hines; music by Paul Mercer; produced by Tracy Martin. A Kino International release; opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Running time: 1:38. No MPAA rating: Adult (for nudity, sexuality, sexual perversions, violence, language).

Prof. Krafft-Ebing - Ted Manson

Mother - Jane Bass

Dr. Goudron - Bryan Davis

Lydia - Lisa Paulsen

Xavier - Daniel Pettrow

Caglios - Rob Nixon

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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