Mauritz Stiller, a nearly forgotten director of Swedish silents perpetually on the cusp of rediscovery, was a contemporary of Victor Sjöström. He was also possibly equal in stature to that titan behind The Wind but is better known in America, if at all, for bringing Greta Garbo across the pond and making her introductions before being shown the next boat back to Sweden. Erotikon, an undeniably quaint and self-fulfillingly naughty sex romp, shows a marriage entering its seven year itch ahead of schedule. Dr. Leo Charpentier is a noodley entomologist who entices his pupils (and the audience) into fits of jocular wink-wink-nudge-nudge by explaining the scintillating kinks of the mating habits of tree beetles. The least developed are monogamous, whereas the kings of the jungle brush and “the most important species” are bigamous. “Generally two females will suffice,” he leers, “but one is never enough.” (The ornate intertitle for this bon mot is decorated with a cartoon beetle flanked by two curvy female beetles.)
Charpentier’s wife, Irene, seems intent on proving his scientific observations true. Which is to say she recklessly displays her bare calves across town in order to demonstrate that the female is the more open-minded, polyamorous (i.e. superior) sex. Not only is she stringing along her husband’s best friend Preben, a darkly handsome but chaste sculptor, but she’s also effectively cheating on that would-be lover with another man, the town’s womanizing aviator. Charpentier, meanwhile, starts getting fidgety eyes around his own niece whenever she teases him with her tender mutton casseroles.
Stiller’s film is almost too flamboyantly embossed with the miasma of cheeky hedonism, and the entry on Stiller in Richard Roud’s definitive Cinema: A Critical Dictionary is probably being generous when it decides that Erotikon isn’t among Stiller’s preeminent work (nor does it compare to genuine silent cinema raunch). It is, like Charpentier’s pale young niece, more tease than sleaze—you’d think that four male writers behind the script could’ve come up with better dirty jokes than to have Charpentier’s lecture on bug sex provide private thrills to those listening at the door. But the film does present a pervasive atmosphere of deferred coitus, in which psychic pelvic thrust end up physically manifesting the hump elsewhere, including—in the film’s outré centerpiece—an extended balletic performance in which Preben’s misgivings about daydreaming about the shape of his best friend’s wife’s ass cheeks chasse their way right in front of his box-seat binoculars.