Investigating Sex (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Director Alan Rudolph has consistently demonstrated a fascination with the intellectual life of the 20s and 30s - the romance of the famous intellectual roundtables, and the role played by those intellectual communities in the development of modernism in the arts. Rudolph has done one film on Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin set in New York (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle), and a second on those who supped at Hemingway's moveable feast in Paris (The Moderns). This is number three.

The other two circles of intellectuals were well known. Most educated people are well aware of the Algonquin Roundtable, which featured Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woolcott, Edna Ferber, Haywood Broun, Franklin P. Adams, Harpo and Groucho Marx and others. If you read an occasional book, you also have at least some passing acquaintance with the jazz age community of literati in Paris, which included Papa Hemingway as well as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and others. If you think about it, it makes pretty good sense to make movies about the gathering of such people, since the screenwriter does not have to strain for sparkling dialogue. Bartlett's is filled with their witticisms and profundities, so their own words create the wit of the dialogue, leaving the screenwriter free to concentrate on narrative.

The third group, the one which forms the basis of Investigating Sex, is much more obscure than the others, and their discussions were much more formal. Andre Breton invited the other high priests of the surrealist movement to meet with him in twelve sessions in which they would discuss sexuality in the most clinical terms possible. Breton presided over the gatherings, and the guests included some major figures in the art world like Luis Bu˝uel and Salvador Dali. Breton seems to have assumed that these discussions would result in some insights which should be shared with others, so he had stenographers present at the meetings. Only two of the edited transcripts were published contemporaneously, but eventually the whole shootin' match made it into print in the form of a book by Jose Pierre called Recherches Sur la sexualite archives du surealisme. A translation of that book made its way into the hands of Rudolph and/or his screenwriter, and thus was this film spawned.  (The location has been changed to a mansion in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the characters are fictionalized.)

Frankly, it wasn't such a good subject for a film, because the discussions had two inherent weaknesses:

1. The people talking really didn't know any more about sex than any other group of people. What qualifications does an abstract artist have for comparing the depth of male and female orgasms? They were free thinkers, to be sure, but their free thoughts were not especially useful in this context. If the group had invited Picasso and Freud, maybe they would have had something worth recording.

2. The people in this group, unlike those in the Dorothy Parker and Gertrude Stein coteries, were not known for their wit, but for their production. Moreover, they were instructed to avoid showing off with any humor or other self-serving comments, and they were adjured to stay as clinical as possible.

In other words, we are treated not to the free-flowing conversations of noted wits discussing their areas of expertise, but to the humorless ruminations of surrealist artists forced to confine their conversation to clinical discussions of a subject matter in which they have no clinical expertise.

Director Alan Rudolph is no fool. He knew that the conversations alone were not suitable movie fodder, so he tried to create a worthwhile film around the characters and their interaction. The first question that came to mind must have been, "Stenographers? Ordinary middle class women trained at secretarial school, and used to transcribing dry discussions of tariffs and laws? What must they have thought of these free-thinkers and their clinical discussions of sex?" For the purposes of the cinema discussions, the stenographers are asked to dress in sexy uniforms, thus acting simultaneously as muses and recorders. The camera watches the stenographers react to the artists, then the story follows how the two women interact with the artists to form romantic and sexual entanglements. One of the stenographers is a highly sexual woman who can sense the pretension and ignorance in the discussions. The other is in training to be an old maid, but gets liberated significantly by her social interaction with the freest of her era's free thinkers.

The conversations are enlivened somewhat by the sex-crazed and perpetually inebriated owners of the mansion, played as lusty old goats by Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld, who does a nearly perfect impersonation of Zsa Zsa Gabor in some scenes, although she was not capable of sustaining a consistent accent. Rudolph and his screenwriter did yeoman's work to make as much as they did of the film, and the cast is excellent and attractive, but it just wasn't that good an idea to begin with, and the film itself just isn't very interesting.

The film's ongoing distribution problems are more interesting than what happens on film. Nick Nolte originally raised the money to shoot the film. He found a German game show company which was willing to finance it it in order to qualify for some German government grants to the arts, which they could not have obtained from game shows alone. To qualify for their grants, they just wanted to make an intellectual film in Germany with a reputable director. (Rudolph had no objection to filming in Berlin and calling it Massachusetts. The story takes place almost entirely inside one house, so the physical location is irrelevant.) Once the game show boys had their grant safely in their pockets, however, greed changed their minds and they wanted Rudolph to create a movie that could be marketed as a sex film. Rudolph refused to re-cut his film to their requirements, and they responded by sitting tight on their ownership rights, so the various parties started to battle in the courts for ownership of the film while it languished undistributed.

That was four years ago. The film has still never been seen in the USA except at film festivals, and has never been released on home video anywhere except Finland! (The logic of Finnish exclusivity is something which still escapes me.)

DVD Info: This film is not available on a Region 1 DVD, and is not available on a VHS video tape. In fact, it is not available on any home medium anywhere except Finland.

The Finnish All-Region DVD, however, while it has no significant features, is clear and crisp. It has a widescreen transfer, but is letterboxed, and is not anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 screens. The menu is in Finnish, but there are only two choices (play movie, select chapter), so you can't really go very wrong. The film is in English. The Finnish DVD info (in English) can be found here. The U.S. distributor's home page can be found here. If you are thinking of buying DVDs from outside your region, read this first. This particular DVD, however, should play anywhere.



  • Dermot Mulroney does full frontal and rear nudity.
  • Til Schweiger shows his bum.
  • Robin Tunney shows her breasts and bum
  • Julie Delpy shows her breasts
  • another woman appears topless in a B&W film within the film.

The Critics Vote ...

  • No major graded reviews online.

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C-. It's not a very involving movie, but it includes some excellent male and female nudity which has rarely been seen.

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