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Pants Off in the Art Museum: Gabriel Axel's Sex & the Law

Few things are more appealing, if not downright sexy, than when the lines between highbrow and lowbrow get blurred. It’s a cultural sweet spot of subversion that even when it is accidental, is still most welcome. That’s a bit of pillow talk for that small and isolated by the cultural time's subgenre of the “white coater.” Cinematic sexual mores were being pushed more and more in the 1960s, with a number of films, to keep the obscenity laws at bay, couched their salaciousness and various degrees of nudity and sex under the guise of a socially redeeming documentary. (The real obscenity? The phrase “socially redeeming.”)

Gabriel Axel’s 1968 pseudo-documentary, Sex and the Law is not technically a “white-coater” since instead of a “Doctor” instructing the audience about the lascivious delights they are witnessing, we get a pretty brunette/mother of two who made the papers after being arrested for appearing in pornographic pictures. It’s an unusual choice that works well for the film as it, uncharacteristically, has a woman, a “regular” non-academic/medical field one at that, taking the narrative lead.

Granted, being in police custody for two months for making unsimulated love on film is the kind of rare experience that gives our guide in Sex and the Law street credibility. (Whether she's factual or not!) Her firm stand on having zero shame over “...only illustrating the art of physical lovemaking…” makes her the kind of sex-positive heroine that is refreshing to see. Well, for the most part, but more on that in a bit.

Speaking of sex positivity, as de rigueur of this particular era of documentaries (pseudo or not), we’re greeted with a number of person-on-the-street interviews, including my personal favorite, a gentleman that simply laughs knowingly when asked what he thinks about pornography. No phony, puritanical bravado, or professor-level pretentious musings, just a chuckle that says it all. Which is, well, what do you think?

There is also some astute discussion of what is permissible vs obscene, that builds into a nice breakdown of hypocrisy in the arts. For example, with male nudity, a flaccid penis, which is described in the film as “ undercooked knock wurst..,” a descriptor that will now forever haunt my dreams, is fine but don’t you dare show that man-winky erect because that is dirty. No wonder so many of us grow up to have not only a writhing snakes' nest of issues with both our bodies as well as sexuality in general!

The beauty of Sex and the Law is the choice of this Earthy, apple-cheeked narrator who speaks so matter-of-factly about pornography and social sexual mores. For perspective, the United States as a country in the year 2023 still has a problem of realizing that adult film actors and performers, much less sex workers in general, are regular people that are also parents, siblings, friends, sons, and daughters too. Our lady of Sex and the Law is no simmering, nymphomaniac vamp nor some true crime-level damage case. As pat as it sounds to say, “Hey man, sex workers are people too,” much like that one Spinal Tap album review, so many folks on this planet are indeed still swimming in a sea of sexual retardation.

The little mention she makes in the beginning about how all of her neighbors whispering and gossiping about her arrest and profession have made life hard for her kids rings all too true. Typical for the false morality squads to be the loudest about “protecting” children but are typically the first to inflict actual emotional (if not also physical and sexual) damage on them.

Speaking of our intrepid narrator, we get to see some behind-the-scenes footage of her directing a sex film. Her behind-the-scenes sequences is not the first we witness, since the film shows male directors, photographers, and even one horny sculptor practice their trade beforehand, but her's is absolutely the most entertaining. (Granted, the odds of any and all of this being staged are about 99.9% likely.)

To see a woman directing ANYTHING in the late 1960s was rare and though far from new (as any proper silent film historian can tell you), feels revolutionary. Seeing a woman direct a sex film? Even more mind-blowing and awesome. Especially when it’s our lovely narrator/mom who is spectacularly no-nonsense and fully residing on the charming side of bossy. Her instructions to her lead actor, who is playing a husband that has arrived home to find his wife in the arms of another, are nothing short of phenomenal. Even if this is some faulty translation for the English dubbing, it is sheer gold. Here’s a little sample: “ just stand there looking mean and evil. Meanwhile, your stupid wife, ooohhhhh, she’s so scared, woohooo, but you’re mad as hell and you just want to throw him out in the streets!”

Less charming is her advice where she notes that women will “...say no…” even if they really want to “...say yes…” It’s the movie’s only real huge honker attitude-wise, though sadly, that was not a rare view at all then and for some utter cretins, even now. Is it worth getting offended by the whole film? No. Why get truly offended by a film from the 1960s when there is a veritable buffet of real-life politicians and CEOS out there who are mucking things up? On top of that, needless to say, if anyone is so simple-minded to blindly take a lead from any media, then they are the issue, never the art.

There are also scenes of married couples enjoying erotic images together, as well as a brief mention of voyeurism and the legal ramifications of being a peeping Tom. One old man has a tame though fantastically executed powdered wig rococo fantasy of nude women dancing together. There is one particularly arty scene of a fully nude young man sad in a stark room, anguished in his loneliness. If there are any telltale signs in Sex and the Law that its director is Gabriel Axel, the man who also co-wrote and directed Babette’s Feast (1987), a favorite film of both the Academy Awards and apparently Pope Francis, it is this one. I could not find anything super concrete regarding the Catholic Church’s stance on Sex and the Law, but gut instinct tells me that it would perhaps not be up their alley.

Sex and the Law, according to Google Translate (insert foghorn noise here), the film’s original Danish title of Det kære legetøj loosely translates to The Dear Toy, which makes it sound both more explicit and goofy than it really is. Then again, The Dear Toy sounds more like an inviting grindhouse experience than Sex and the Law, which reads more like a title to an academic term paper than a pseudo-documentary narrated by a working-class sex film actress/director.

At some point, Sex and the Law did get a DVD release in its native Denmark, though it looks like it might be currently out of print. Luckily, it is available via a number of streaming sites, including the insanely charming Cultpix, which is where I saw it. Their print even has the Something Weird Video watermark, but no worries, since the fine folks at Cultpix are working directly with SWV. (Plus, if you're like me, the SWV watermark is akin to a golden seal of approval.)

Sex and the Law is one-part sincere documentary, part white coater, and a wholly interesting look at how little has changed since 1968 for so many places. The means of how many access and consume erotica obviously has transformed a lot, but the attitudes around it, not quite as much. Films like this are especially important because one can learn about the past while hopefully acting on having a better future.


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