I am a Sex Addict (2005)

Film Review by Ramon Kubicek, BA, Dip.Art, Dip.Film, Cert.Ed, MA
Instructor, Langara College and Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design, Vancouver, British Columbia and
Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC
Director of CME and Professional Development, Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia

USA 2005. Director: Caveh Zahedi

There seems to be something paradoxical about the concept of sexual addiction. Addictions are supposed to be associated with clinically significant impairment or distress. And what could possibly be distressing about repetitive sexual activity – virtually everyone’s adolescent fantasy?

Well – meet Caveh Zahedi and his highly personal film I am a Sex Addict in which Zahedi plays himself on the occasion of his third marriage. Speaking directly to his audience, we learn from a now 43-year-old Zahedi that all his other relationships have been ruined because of his habit of visiting prostitutes and then sharing that information with his partner of the moment.

The film cleverly draws us in with its promise of lurid confession and the filmmaker’s attempt to be honest about everything. The nature of the addictive behaviour also rings true – it consumes Zahedi’s life, escalating over time despite unsuccessful attempts to stop and ultimately destroys relationships he values. Yet the whimsical treatment and the pathetic bumbling of Zahedi’s persona invite us to see the film as a comic essay on the contradictions of confession, honesty and love.

Mixing staged reenactments with behind-the-scenes documentary footage, archival home-movie footage and frequent narrative asides and digressions, much of I am a Sex Addict’s documentary and improvisational style reminds us of Godard’s movies, particularly My Life to Live (1962), with Anna Karina’s existential hero-prostitute character; those of John Cassavetes (Faces, 1968, with its improvisational, cinema-vérité qualities); and the gritty, edgy films of Mike Leigh.

Although one could also praise the provocative candor of the film, the real strength of I am a Sex Addict is clearly its moments of physical and situational comedy. Lest we take the autobiography too seriously, we are continuously reminded of the film’s artifice: substituting San Francisco for Paris for reasons of economy and telling us that some of the actresses were uncomfortable with performing the oral sex scenes. There are some genuinely funny moments, including how Zahedi uses a can of black spray paint to help play himself as a younger 23-year-old. There are also the most (and let’s hope deliberately) unsexy and unromantic enacted scenes with prostitutes that you could imagine – often ending with close-ups of Zahedi moaning – or roaring – unconvincingly for the camera. Zahedi’s appearance has been compared to Harpo Marx – and there is something immediately physically disarming and visually amusing about the man.

Unfortunately however, there is a pervasive air of ‘creepiness’ about I am a Sex Addict. True to his destructive addictive nature, Zahedi compulsively makes the same mistakes over and over again. He becomes far less sympathetic a character, particularly as his ‘mistakes’ are so dehumanizing to his paid female accomplices and begin to include rape fantasies. Disconcertingly, the film includes footage and photographs of his real wives and partners.

The viewer’s reaction becomes one of revulsion as ugly narcissism begins to dominate the film. Zahedi comes to resemble a Woody Allen without emotional fragility or wit and what appears to have begun as an honest heartfelt self-deprecating confession veers towards boastfulness.

I am a Sex Addict ends with Zahedi informing us he has finally found the help he needs by joining a group of ‘Sex Addicts Anonymous’. He has been with his latest girlfriend for seven years and is about to be married.

But his journey to recovery is not convincing. There’s no indication that Zahedi has started to genuinely examine the psychological causes and consequences of his addiction and that it includes not just sexual voracity but a likely desire for women to be shamed and submissive. Throughout the movie, there has been little to show the viewer that Zahedi is truly aware as to how he has affected his lovers with his callous behaviour, and there is no sense of real remorse for anything he has done. As a result, his addiction remains a lark and in the end, trivialized.

At one point in the movie Zahedi confessed that one of his favourite places to masturbate was in the confessional of a French cathedral. Unfortunately, much of I am a Sex Addict feels like watching a confessional masturbation for over 90 minutes on the big screen – repetitive, monotonous, and – although presumably satisfying to the director – ultimately unsatisfying to the viewer.