“The Art of Loving: The Story of Michalina Wislocka” is a film about the life and work of one of the most important and radical doctors in 20th-century communist Poland. Wislocka was a gynecologist, sexologist and the author of the book “The Art of Loving,” published in 1976 despite censorship and suppression. Her life’s work revolved around the belief that sex and love are fundamentally intertwined, and that the culture’s repressed and fearful attitudes towards sex was hurting women and men alike. She was an advocate for sexual health in all forms, ranging from contraception to pleasure. Her book was key in ushering in a new era in the way Poland looked at and talked about sex, and she helped improve the lives of millions of people.
“The Art of Loving” directed by Maria Sadowska (“Women’s Day”), pays appropriate tribute to this brilliant and brave individual, as it’s a funny, heartfelt and earnestly sexy movie. We follow Michalina (Magdalena Boczarska, “Citizen”) in her struggle to get her book published, dealing with the Polish government’s attempts to censor and silence her. She’s called crazy more times than I can count, but all the pushback only makes her try harder. She’s a whirlwind when bursting doors open and confronting people with a bluntness that shocks them to their core. She refuses to sacrifice her integrity, because she knows the stakes at hand. She has decades of experience, and has seen the consequences of poor sex education — women dying of botched, illegal abortions, marriages torn apart by infidelity and dissatisfaction and a country full of miserable people who can’t seem to find a way to talk about something they all do. “It’s the underbelly of our society,” she says. It’s vitally important to her, and Boczarska’s charismatic performance pulls the audience to her side. It becomes important to us, too.
The film is interspersed with flashbacks to her life and career building up to this point. We watch her marriage, its forays into polyamory and subsequent dissolution. There’s no small amount of heartbreak as her family is torn apart, but Michalina is resilient. She persists and continues to work, because she cares about women and wants to help them. For Michalina, help means many different things. She’s a trained clinical technician with medical expertise, but she’s also a funny and experienced woman who gives people a more holistic approach to finding satisfaction and happiness. Boczarska grapples that divide with grace, and her nuanced performance grounds the whole movie in studied, careful realism.
“The Art of Loving” is, above all, highly entertaining. It runs at a snappy pace, with sharp editing and a bright musical score that pulses the story along. Dialogue movies quickly, and the plot jumps between time periods deftly. The whole film is a balancing act between humor and gravitas, but Sadowska finds the middle ground easily. The tones complement each other, so these shifts are never jarring.
It’s also the rare movie that features characters with believable romantic chemistry. Movies about sex tend to be either crass and exploitative, or overly serious and dour in an attempt to overcorrect the genre’s cruder history. But “The Art of Loving” is neither: it’s a movie which features a lot of sex that’s graphic but never objectifies its actors. It’s the most sex-positive movie since “Magic Mike XXL” (which is saying a lot for this writer), and it approaches the subject as Michalina herself does: as an extension of love and connection. During a press conference in the film, Michalina is asked if she wrote her book based on her own personal experiences. Her response? “A blind person could not write a book about colors.” So you get the sense that the filmmakers truly appreciate and care about their subject and truly make an attempt to understand her.
The movie is a celebration of one woman’s resilience and strength, and a testament to the power of empathy and love in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s a movie as bright and hopeful as the woman who inspired it. It deserves a wide distribution, an open audience and all the accolades we can muster. But maybe the public still isn’t ready for the openness and honesty of Wislocka’s ideas — only time will tell.