Video Sundays: Victorian Voyeurism

Recommended viewing: The oldest surviving British erotic film, and its historical counterparts.
Kelley Dong
Esmé Collings's Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir (1896) is the oldest surviving British erotic film. The film, presented here, has been made publicly available by the British Film Institute (BFI) as part of its Pleasure Principle collection. And per the title of the collection, the magic of Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir lies in the pleasure of projection—namely, that of the spectator whose desire lies beneath the layers of clothing that are stripped away, one article at a time. The woman, whose name is unknown, appears to speak as she removes the clothes, staring directly at the camera as she struggles to remove a sock. Though the camera is still, our eyes wander.
To make a spectacle of the act of undressing, within an English context and regarding the Collings film, recalls a particular tradition of commodified peeping. Scholar Kirstyn Leuner writes that the history of the dressing room is "tightly intertwined with that of the English theatre," particularly the 18th-century English practice that allowed "paying patrons to watch actresses dress and undress for their roles." What makes the Peeping Tom dynamic of Collings's film even more intriguing is its formal similarities with two other "pornographic" works of the time, Eugène Pirou’s 1896 Bedtime for the Bride (which is not available online in its entirety) and Georges Méliès's 1897 After the Ball.
Likewise taking place in boudoirs, the films depict a woman undressing, decorating the process with varying degrees of sensuality and humor (in Pirou's film, the groom appears to check his watch as his wife removes her heavy petticoats; while After the Ball involves a maid undressing the lady herself). But these three films are also about voyeurism itself, the technical circumstance of the static shot—which distinguishes the trio from later films (NSFW) of the early 1900s featuring explicit sex scenes in a more fast-paced arrangement of medium and close-up shots—accentuating the distance felt between the woman who approaches full nakedness and the voyeur, fully clothed in the theatre.


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