It takes a special kind of film to take an otherwise unsexy object and canonize it eternally in the annals of sex-scene history. Ghost gave us the sexy pottery wheel. Call Me by Your Name gave us the sexy peach. And Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (out November 13) gives us — against all odds — the sexy lie-detector test.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells the true (ish) story of Wonder Woman creator and former Harvard psychologist William Moulton Marston. As we learn in the film, the comic books were inspired by his polyamorous, BDSM relationship with his psychologist wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their lab assistant turned lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) back in the 1920s.
The film contains a number of creative, retro erotic moments: William and Elizabeth getting very turned on as they watch Olive get paddled during a sorority-initiation rite; their first three-way in an empty Harvard auditorium; and their nascent exploration of kink and BDSM, including plenty of bodysuit-and-rope play that would later come to inspire Wonder Woman’s iconic costume. But perhaps my favorite erotic moment comes early on in the film, as Elizabeth and William are attempting to figure out their feelings for Olive. How will they ever be able to admit to each other those things they can barely admit to themselves?
The film’s answer: a lie-detector test. William actually did invent the first polygraph machine with help from Elizabeth, and early on, we see the couple tinkering with their invention, which functions by fastening a strap around the wearer’s chest (perfect for shots of heaving bosoms, of which there are many). After some trial and error, Olive suggests that in order for the machine to work properly, the “lie” has to be something that the subject cares about concealing. It’s then that the trio discovers that the invention can be used as a way to explore their own buried feelings under the guise of scientific experimentation — a clinical approach to the great mysteries of human desire.
And so comes lie-detector-test round one: Elizabeth is the interrogator, William the interrogatee, Olive the onlooker. Surrounded by candles, late at night in the lab, Elizabeth asks her husband a series of mundane questions. Where do you live? What do you do? And then, the rub: Are you in love with Olive Byrne? William says no. The lie detector jitters and skitters. But this isn’t merely a wife catching a husband in a lie; there’s a lot more at play here. When Elizabeth leaves in a fury, Olive runs after her and kisses her on the lips, now impelled to fess up to her own hidden truth. “I don’t love him, I love you,” she says. Elizabeth pulls away. “Get away from me. Gather your things, I want you out of here immediately.”
Suffice it to say, that’s not the end of it. After a whole bunch of tortured will-they-won’t-they, in which Olive quits her position and William and Elizabeth miss her terribly, we come to another late candlelit night in the lab. This time, Elizabeth is strapped into the polygraph, with William administering the questions. He asks if she misses Olive. She says no. “A lie.” And so Elizabeth comes clean: “Maybe I’m in love with her, too.”
Still, the odds remain stacked against them. This can’t possibly happen! This is the ’20s, for Christ’s sake, long before “throuples” were fodder for trend pieces. They all try, unsuccessfully, to move on.
And then comes the final lie-detector experiment. On yet another late night, Olive, unable to stay away from her seductive mentors, walks into the lab. Why is she here, they ask? She can’t answer that. And so, the group does what they do when they need answers to things that cannot be spoken of — they strap Olive into the polygraph machine.
“What do you want?” asks William. “I don’t know,” she responds. At that point, the needle skitters and jumps. “That is a lie,” he says. The sound of the lie detector whirring in the background resembles that of a beating heart, and as an audience, we feel our hearts race in turn, mimicking the subjective experience of arousal. The interrogation continues. “Are you in love with me?” He asks. A pause: “No.” The machine says otherwise. “Are you in love with Elizabeth?” Olive swallows, averts her eyes. “No.” the lie detector goes wild. The trio’s eyes dart from one to another, the tension so thick you can practically feel it clamming up the movie theater. “Do you want to have sex with me?” Olive swallows and stammers. “N-no.” A lie. “Do you want to have sex with Elizabeth?” “No.” Another lie.
You see where this is going. Marston turns the machine off, with a satisfying click.
“Well,” he says.
And with that, they finally have sex — in a gorgeous and dreamlike threesome scene that more than delivers on the intense erotic release we’ve been promised.
As a way to build tension and dramatize the psychological dimensions of sexual desire, I can think of few plot devices (or literal devices) more effective. The lie detector manifests our trio’s hidden desires as measurable physiological symptoms — racing heart, quickened breath, rushing blood — all while remaining outwardly chaste. (Plus, visually, it’s also hard to ignore the parallels between getting strapped into the lie detector and the later scenes of rope bondage.)
Films love polygraph tests: They’re a staple of crime dramas, a great way to dramatize the gap between surface appearances and inner truth, the push and pull between interrogator and interrogatee, storyteller and truth-seeker. Turning interrogation into foreplay dramatizes the dynamics of submission and dominance in everyday life. In these scenes, each takes turns being the interrogator, the observer, and the one being interrogated — each takes turns being the one in control and the one who is completely powerless.
And, conveniently, the polygraph gets each of the characters to where they need to be — each aware of their own desires for one another, each unable to hide how they feel — while still obeying the intense social pressure to conceal their true feelings. After all, the best sex is always the kind we can’t admit we want.