Bright Lights Film Journal

Radley Metzger: The Dirty Girls, Carmen Baby, The Princess and the Call Girl on DVD

Will Metzger mania never end?

Image Entertainment’s ambitious program of releasing what appears to be just about every Radley Metzger film is a feast for completists and fans of the more marginal realms of exploitation cinema. More skeptical viewers may find it a case of diminishing returns, not only because of sometimes compromised source materials but because none of these films rises to the level of the director’s best work: Therese and Isabelle, Little Mother, Lickerish Quartet, Camille 2000.

That said, these films do have interest as documents of their time. The Dirty Girls (1964) is from Metzger’s early days when the idea of Europe as a center for sophisticated sexual pleasures was hitting America’s grindhouses and porn palaces. Carmen, Baby (1967) integrates women’s lib and counterculture motifs into its revamping of the Prosper Merimee story that provided the basis for the opera Carmen. With The Princess and the Call Girl (1983), Metzger apparently ran out of steam, or perhaps the culture tired of his combination of artfulness and softcore, because it enjoyed neither critical nor popular success and was his last directorial effort to date.

The Dirty Girls was a title Metzger came to regret – “the ‘dirty’ label stuck to my films for a few years,” he has said – and the film itself should also have occasioned some regret. It’s a tedious black-and-white tour of the demimonde of whores in Paris and Munich (the film was shot in the latter city). The first half tracks the adventures of a pretty, vapid prostitute and the variety of tricks she encounters. These tricks – a nervous student, a sadist, a fetishist – provide the “everyman” feel of the film and, perhaps more importantly, are unattractive enough not to threaten male viewers. Midway through, the plot does an abrupt turn to Munich and focuses on another bubble-brained whore, Monique. There’s no thread that ties these adventures together, unless you count the overdub – a radio announcer-type voice that prattles endlessly about “the woman of 10,000 pleasures.” This voiceover also establishes what we see as a pure male fantasy filled with submissive, dewy-eyed sex dolls, a far cry from the tough (if troubled) women of later, better Metzger films like Therese and Isabel or Camille 2000. An idiotic comic subplot with a geeky New York businessman trying (for what seems like hours) to give a camera to Monique only adds to the woes.

The Dirty Girls has mild camp value: exaggerated dubbing provides a few laughs, and there’s some mindless “decadence” in the form of clothed partygoers jumping into a swimming pool fully clothed, a la Fellini. Nudity is intermittent and the sex is typically discreet, with the most erotic scene being a lesbian tryst in a shower. The condition of the source material is not great. There’s jarring print shrinkage in some scenes, occasional overexposure, and noticeable artifacts. This is the dark side of DVD: highlighting flaws even as it sharpens the general look.

Three years after The Dirty Girls, Metzger’s brand of art and sex was considered hip enough to be reviewed in The New York Times: “The hip Carmen in modern undress” was the paper of record’s judgment. As in many a Metzger, this one opens with a male voiceover leading us on a tour of a swinging new world of casual sex and, in this case, casual crime. Carmen’s a Spanish waitress who, according to the tenor of the times, pursues her fun on her own terms and has a vague involvement with some smugglers. This gives considerable grief to Jose, the policeman who moons over, and eventually murders, her.

Carmen, Baby is middling successful Metzger, and very typical of his work. It has a strong woman at the center; exotic location shooting; artful, discreet sex scenes; and a party sequence to show American audiences the director’s singular brand of “la dolce vita.” Pop culture was still trying to make sense of women who stood up for themselves and demanded sexual equality, and Carmen, well played by the fetching Uta Levka, is no surprise in this regard: she’s a mystery even to her many admirers. A Baron who’s enthralled with her says, “I know her intimately… but not well.” Jose refers to her despairingly as “that strange and wild girl.”

Much of the film is taken up with Carmen’s on-again, off-again relationship with Jose, and these scenes suffer from actor Claus Ringer’s wooden rendering of what should be a passionate, tormented character. He’s as dull as she is intense. (It doesn’t help that Ringer’s Aryan good looks capsize any notion he’s a Spanish cop.) Carmen’s aggressive lovemaking, and Jose’s submission – Carmen is usually on top of him – adds some life to these sequences, but too much of the time they’re arguing too predictably about his demand for fidelity and her refusal. It’s hard for us to believe a willful woman like Carmen would waste time with such a dullard, and the film doesn’t seem to believe it either. Lighting and camerawork (by Metzger’s talented collaborator Hans Jura) are first-rate, and the transfer is sharp and mostly intact, with good colors.

In an interview with Stephen Gallagher in filmmag.com, Metzger said Carmen, Baby was his biggest success (a fact he attributes partly to The New York Times’s generous quote), but no such luck befell The Princess and the Call Girl. This strange film riffs on The Prince and the Pauper with two modern women – one a society deb, the other a sophisticated prostitute – exchanging identities and stations in life. (Both roles are played by the same actress, Carol Levy.) The idea behind such a farce is to titillate viewers with the idea of class and sex roles turned upside down, and Metzger adds sexual spice to this hoary concept. The film was shot in a variety of stunning locales (New York, Monaco, Nice, Antibes), making this a kind of travelogue with sex.

The Princess and the Call Girl is a comedy, but most of the jokes fall flat. Metzger’s history as a cinephile comes out in a moment of near humor when two of the characters, both movie buffs, “talk dirty” by working each other up with names of old movie stars. (This is surely the only film in which the phrase “Jeanette MacDonald” constitutes foreplay.) There’s the usual playful party scene complete with sexy party games (moderate nudity), changing partners, and a “corruption of the innocent” motif common in Metzger (cf. Score). While Carol Levy is no Christine Kruger or Danièle Gaubert or Erika Remberg or even Uta Levka, she does have some charming moments as a character who has a little bit of both Metzger archetypes – the bimbo of early films like The Dirty Girls and the strong, self-possessed women in Metzger’s best films. But much of the action is listless, and some of it doesn’t even make sense. Perhaps because it’s the most recent of the three films reviewed here, the quality of this transfer is the best. As with the others, there’s a trailer and chapter search, but no other extras. And it could have used at least a couple more extras – narrative coherence and energy, for starters.