Metzger madness begins in earnest with the release of four of his best on DVD
“Art” has long functioned as a code word for erotica in certain contexts. Phrases like “art photos,” “art films,” “art house” have all been coopted by clever entrepreneurs to market porn – soft and hard – to audiences who could more easily accept the idea under this respectable rubric. (It was also one way to confuse law enforcement.) In the sixties the term “art film” could mean a Bergman masterpiece, an Andy Milligan sleazefest, or a tasty slice of Radley Metzger Euro-erotica.
Despite the convenience of the label, truly artistic erotica has always been a rarity in any genre. For every successful novel like Lolita or Terry Southern’s Blue Movie, there are a zillion trash-pulp derivatives from Beacon, Beeline, Pad, Saber, and other legendary sleaze publishers. For every Mapplethorpe there are reams of tired commercial porn mags bulging on pornshop shelves. Cinema’s no different. Of the volumes of material that poured onto grindhouse screens from the ’50s on, only a handful even aspired to, much less attained, any significant aesthetic value. Radley Metzger, whose most productive period was the late ’60s to the mid-’70s, is surely the standout in this select group. Image Entertainment has given us a good excuse to survey his achievements by releasing four of his major films on DVD – Therese and Isabelle (1968), Camille 2000 (1969), The Lickerish Quartet (1970), and Score (1976), with several more (including the legendary Eva Peron story Little Mother) soon to arrive.
Like many other auteurs toiling outside the realm of the respectable, Metzger was also a film distributor, so he was less at the mercy of others in terms of choosing and realizing projects than his more mainstream counterparts. This makes it easier to say the films are indeed his, though acknowledgment must be made of his superb collaborators such as Enrico Sabbatini, art director for sumptuous works like Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet, and Hans Jura, the fine cinematographer of Therese and Isabelle and The Lickerish Quartet.
Metzger was both a key player in, and a catalyst for, the sexual revolution of the ’60s, and his career contains several milestones in this area. Among these is Therese and Isabelle, the first and still one of the best realistic treatments of an adolescent lesbian amour; The Lickerish Quartet, which merged the unlikely elements of Pirandello and pornography; and Score, a sex farce that was far ahead of its time in refashioning the erotic date movie with humor and extensive – and in some prints, hardcore – gay, lesbian, and bi sex.
What distinguishes these films today from their many forgotten counterparts is not only the provocative, upbeat attitude toward sex – by turns playful, challenging, artful – but Metzger’s sophisticated visual and formal sensibility that incorporates all kinds of visual trickery normally not seen outside cinema’s textbook classics. One of his favorite devices is shooting a scene not directly but as a reflection in a mirror, a glass bowl, a marble wall, a shiny surface. Camille 2000 reinforces its theme of tragically fleeting pleasure in an abundance of such oblique shots. Marguerite Gauthier (the glorious Daniele Gaubert, who died in 1971 of cancer) languishes in her polar-white bedroom, with an endless line of mirrors reflecting the action. Her white bedroom and clear plastic furniture presage her grim end in an eerily similar white hospital and oxygen tent. Her many mirrors, breathtaking in themselves, show her duplicity and elusiveness, which the film painstakingly documents throughout. For Metzger, the aching visual beauty of his characters’ surroundings exist both for themselves, to show that such beauty is possible in a squalid world, and as a kind of gilt-edged tomb that prevents these glamorous women and distracted playboys from finding true romantic or spiritual solace.
Metzger honors his respectable sources – Dumas for Camille 2000, Pirandello for The Lickerish Quartet, famed French novelist Violette Leduc for Therese and Isabelle – by elaborately detailing the gorgeous environments in which the characters move. In Camille 2000, a mod update of the 1930s Cukor-Garbo vehicle, the characters are rich, decadent, beautiful but bored jet-setters trying to squeeze every ounce of pleasure out of their ephemeral lives. Metzger’s mise-en-scene, much of it supplied by Sabbatini, is a breathless series of ultra-plush environments that resonate with Italian haute design of the period: plastic blow-up couches, chain-mail dresses, and in Camille 2000, a white coffee table as big as a tennis court! Marguerite and her groupies are involved in every fetish imaginable, culminating in an elaborate s&m party in which mock-jails are set up, chains are tied around waists and throats, and playful punishments are administered. Metzger’s attitude toward sex is bittersweet, not judging. He’s like a respectful voyeur, examining a moment in time in minutest detail, fixing that moment on film, then moving on.
The film successfully creates a tension between the endless, relentless party and Marguerite’s desperation to have a normal life and normal love affair with the only sincere character in the film, Armand du Val (Nino Castelnuevo), and in a stunning sequence, the film frees her from the party when she and Armand run off to a small seaside town far from the strangling mise-en-scene of the overrich, overripe castle in which she plays and suffers.
Camille 2000 was allegedly shot in three-strip Technicolor, and while Image’s transfer is mostly successful, with vibrant colors and an overall clarity, Technicolor buffs won’t recognize it as such. Of the four DVDs here, this one shows the most visual defects; it’s occasionally splicey, and looks especially worn at reel changes. The best transfer in the series is Therese and Isabelle. The ratio here is the always welcome Ultrascope (2.35:1), and the black-and-white is for the most part crystal clear, the blacks velvety and true, and with very few splices. None of these DVDs has much in the way of add-ons: all have a scene access menu and a trailer, but no commentaries, subtitles, multiple languages, camera angles, etc.
Therese and Isabelle is perhaps unique in Metzger’s canon in one sense. The mise-en-scene is as rich as in any of the films, but it’s a more stately, naturalistic atmosphere, with the title characters, French schoolgirls falling in love, consistently identified with nature and seemingly happiest in it, far from the confines of the school’s dramatic, cold arches and vast empty hallways. Fans of Metzger who haven’t seen this film will be surprised by the film’s concentration on the behavioral nuance and its merging of the characters with nature, strategies far removed from the extreme artifice seen in more familiar works like Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet.
Author Violette Leduc only permitted Metzger to adapt her autobiographical novel Therese and Isabelle on condition that he not “make a dirty film” (she must have discovered that his first film was called The Dirty Girls), but she needn’t have worried; this is both visually sumptuous and respectful, almost reverent in its treatment of the girls’ intense, sometimes tortured affair. Therese and Isabelle‘s black-and-white photography shimmers onscreen, and scenes such as their bicycle ride through a country path embowered by trees gives a sense of lush lyricism, with the camera gliding gracefully along in an unbroken movement reminiscent of Ophuls or Mizoguchi. Most radical, and still fresh, is a scene in which the two girls make love in a dark forest adjacent to the school, their nude bodies stretched unapologetically across the screen, with a small pool of water glimmering in the foreground. This is one of the film’s breakthroughs – the unencumbered lesbian body presented directly, at one with nature, without the mediation of men.
Therese (Essy Persson) and Isabelle (Anna Gael) are both surprisingly skilled actresses (surprising given their association with disreputable genres) who bring their characters to scintillating life; one of the hallmarks of Metzger’s cinema is his simpatico direction of women, particularly strong, intransigent ones who refuse to accept the status quo and compete directly with and sometimes control the men around them. This puts him in select company indeed: Cukor, Mizoguchi, Mitchell Leisen were all similarly dubbed. The Lickerish Quartet follows this approach in featuring two powerful women in what its tagline called “an erotic duet in four players.” Silvana Venturelli is a motorcycle daredevil; and Erica Remberg, who looks like a dominatrix who’s lost her leather, is one of Metzger’s many female sexual sophisticates, equally ready for whatever sex is offered in her search for thrills before the ever-threatening end of the party. Metzger called Lickerish “my most personal film,” while the always inventive Italians released it as Erotica, Exotica, Psychotica, Fab! Again the film contrasts an overripe, almost absurdly plush environment (this time a rented hotel/restaurant of exceptional baroqueness) with the existential angst and frustrated desires of a group of jaded sophisticates. These characters are like something out of a deSade novel – gathered in a cloistered environment to engage in a variety of transgressively sexual encounters, punctuated here by hardcore porn loops that play on a movie screen behind them. Among the film’s visual surprises is an ultra-modern library in which two of the characters make love on a floor covered by a gigantic blow-up of a book page filled with obscene words. Image’s transfer of this DVD is acceptable, with a solid range of colors and minimal splices. It is not pristine, however, and shows occasional flaws.
Score represents Metzger’s transition between softcore and hardcore, and it’s appropriate that the film exists in several versions that tilt in one direction or the other. Metzger’s Audubon films has released a full hardcore version that shows gay and straight buttfucking, cocksucking, dildo penetration, and all manner of sexual revolution high jinks; the more readily available First Run Pictures version, which seems to be the source of the present DVD from Image, cut nearly seven minutes of such questionable stuff, (Go to Mondo Erotico for a precise breakdown of the cuts in various prints.)
That said, Score is still a highly entertaining sexual roundelay, really a sex farce based on a play originally set in Queens, New York. The action was moved to the once pristine, now probably destroyed Yugoslavian coastline, standing in for the French Riviera. (As Metzger said, “Who wants to see sex in Queens?”) Presented as a fairy tale, the film shows sophisticates Elvira (Claire Wilbur) and Jack (Gerald Grant) attempting to seduce an allegedly naïve couple – Eddie (Cal Culver, aka the late gay porn star Casey Donovan) and Betsy (Lynn Lowry) – in an elaborate series of sex games. Some of the accoutrements are dated – how long has it been since anyone’s seen an actual box, complete with original label, of amyl nitrate? – but the enthusiasm of the actors, particularly the witty Claire Wilbur, pull it off literally and figuratively. Metzger’s visual trickery is evident in scenes where characters literally transform into each other; for example, Eddie’s guilt at being screwed by Jack makes him imagine Jack is Betsy. The transfer of Score is fine, with reasonably rich colors and not a distracting number of splices or obvious wear.
With the increasingly homogenized, committee-driven nature of film, Metzger’s work, with its ambitious and literate source material, extreme formal control, bittersweet worldview, and sexual egalitarianism, now seems more modern than most of what’s occupying present-day multiplex screens, and on that basis it is welcome indeed.