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Exploring women's sexuality, 'Pursuit' poses provocative questions

Does "The Pursuit of Pleasure" suggest something a little naughty to you? If yes, then Boston filmmaker Maryanne Galvin's point has been made even before her latest documentary rolls onto the screen. We live in a country where too much of a good thing is usually a bad thing (alcoholism, obesity), and this is particularly true when it comes to sex.

Note: Ladies should replace "usually" with "always" in the previous sentence. "The Pursuit of Pleasure" retraces a history of repression and under-reaching feminism that arguably hasn't brought us much beyond our scarlet letter days.

Galvin, a forensic psychologist as well as a filmmaker, likes to pick at the taboos of our society. Her past works include "Thanatos Rx: The Death Penalty Debate in America" and "High, Fast and Wonderful," which tagged along with priests who minister to circus acts, race-car drivers, and migrant workers. This latest documentary examines the sexual backgrounds and opinions of seven contemporary women, among them a former stripper, a nonagenarian sex therapy pioneer, a young mother, and an ex-nun. They represent an interesting mix of geographic locations, influences, stages of life, and conclusions, even if they're an all-white bunch that doesn't really say anything astounding.

The women are interviewed separately, and Galvin lets them talk while she orchestrates a symphony of images around them -- vintage TV and movie clips, news footage, home movies, and anything else she can get her hands on. It's a witty visual assault, but sometimes it's distracting in a way that unnecessarily insinuates the filmmaker doesn't trust her subjects' words to stand naked.

The other problem is that Galvin chooses to bookend the film with a bowling analogy that takes on the thud of a gutter ball when the ladies of the Pleasure Babes team refuse to be interviewed. Because it's so obvious that the director had bigger plans for the bowlers, keeping them as a framing device feels like a desperate way to begin and end what is otherwise a pretty savvy package.

"Pursuit" touches on many provocative questions. If women are having less sex than half a century ago, how have our desires evolved? Years after tackling equal rights, is another women's movement needed to address more intimate issues such as body image and emotional authenticity?

The pleasure in watching this film comes from knowing that no topic is off limits to the enlightened women interviewed. They may not be a true cross section of the population, but they make you imagine a time when this film's title won't suggest anything naughty and its personal stories won't raise a single eyebrow.

Janice Page can be reached at

The Pursuit of Pleasure
Written and directed by: Maryanne Galvin
Narrated by: Annie Copps
At: Museum of Fine Arts, various dates through Aug. 21
Running time: 52 minutes
Unrated (mature themes, nudity, language)

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