While it plays its subject for absurd laughs, Orgasm Inc. deals in matters more dour than the film's candy colored animations suggest. A pharmaceutical industry on the hunt for a second economic miracle invents a female equivalent to Viagra and a disorder to go along with it: Female Sexual Dysfunction. Though female sexuality doesn't mirror male sexuality, the expectations the company has of the product are, of course, identical. While director Liz Canner's exposé demonstrates a lot of research on the pharmaceuticals industry, it eschews the volumes of study done on female sexual psychology—doing so tidies the issue but also lowers the stakes. That aside, the film is a twisty and playful primer that suggests the best thing to do when beset with ugly forces is to publicly laugh them off. What happens in private is your business.
With a subject as trenchant as sexual dysfunction, it seems like jokes could tell more truth than reportage. Canner, who has a legacy of human rights docs to her name, was hired by a pharmaceutical company to make erotic films for the clinical trials of a new female Viagra product. After Canner discovers men and women like different kinds of porn, she uncovers some staggering logic guiding the chemists who develop the product. Marketing math transforms test groups into proof of miraculous success and from that magic the drug-makers are convinced they've got solutions for women—but which women? So they reverse-engineer a disorder to go with their cure and the company conveniently discovers A LOT of women have it. When Canner speaks to test subjects, the results go from harrowing to horrifying. Risk factors for "The Orgasmatron," a wire inserted into the spine (and left there poking out!) are incredibly high, and the result for one test subject, a married woman only capable of achieving orgasm by extra-coital means, is a twitching leg. The crossed wires and body tampering this implies, not to mention the delicate nature of the things tampered with, constitute a body horror worthy of David Cronenberg. When Canner attends a medical convention featuring a booth for female Viagra, the sales woman listens to Canner's research and seems converted. In a post-script we learn different, but for a moment we think the industry might come to their senses. (In a film about female orgasm, this is our biggest fantasy.) In this universe lunacy is lucrative and, as such, necessary. Snake oil salesmen we have a plenty, they're just in better shoes these days; and what have we got, now that they've outlawed tar and feathers? (Besides angry docs, I mean.)
The objectification of women has been a subject for film studies since the academic revolution, and docs are a place that study mobilized as activism, so one might expect a bit more theoretical intrigue in the film's direction. The closest we have to this is a moment when the camera is set up above an interviewee who may be pleasuring herself—the suggestion of her action and our lack of access to her pleasure is a reminder of the line between the public and the private—a line these pharmaceutical companies are insidiously transgressing. While it has its trenchant moments, the film treads little ideological water, which his just enough to leave an audience unsatisfied.
Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Liz Canner
Running time: 80 min.
Release date: February 11 NY/CHI, April 29 LA