Bright Lights Film Journal

Seduction Is Universal: Thoughts on Radley Metzger


The master of Euro-erotica is starting to get his due in recent revivals

The “golden age” of porn during the ’60s and ’70s was more fool’s gold than real for queer audiences. In spite of the endless talk about the sexual revolution, gay sexual imagery was mostly confined to its own little ghetto of grainy loops and, eventually, a few all-male venues that sprung up among the legion of relentlessly hetero Pussycat and Mitchell Brothers Theatres. (Lesbian “venues” per se never materialized.) Of course, there was always the seeming exception of the obligatory dyke sequence in much of straight porn, but these usually had a grim, forced feel, and it’s doubtful that queer viewers were fooled.

On the other hand, a few of porn’s pioneers took the sexual revolution seriously and did bring more authentic gay and bi imagery into their “straight” films. Radley Metzger, whose work spans the early ‘sixties through the mid-‘eighties, is by far the best of this meager lot. He made what is still probably the finest commercial feature about adolescent lesbian love, Therese and Isabelle (1968), and in works like Score (1972) he devotes as much time to the homosexual trysts as to their hetero counterparts – which is probably why that film was not a success when it was first released. Metzger is philosophical about this. “Seduction is universal,” he said in a recent interview. “I think we break it down and say, ‘This is straight, this is gay.'”

The worldly attitude these words imply is on full, florid display in Metzger’s mature work. Some of these projects were peculiar indeed – what to make of Little Mother (1972), a pre-Evita Eva Peron biopic with softcore touches? Or Carmen, Baby (1967), a porn remake of Bizet’s Carmen, with the toreador now a rock singer and Carmen a trashy waitress/hooker? The Lickerish Quartet (1967) looks like a remake of Pasolini’s Teorema, but its pedigree is actually even fancier: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. The idea of revamping the 19th-century Dumas melodrama that became Garbo’s Camille might not come immediately to mind as a commercial prospect in 1969, but Metzger resurrected it with panache in Camille 2000. For a man who cites Max Ophuls and Orson Welles as primary influences, such artistic strivings shouldn’t be too surprising.

Camille 2000, with its cast of wealthy, weary sophisticates, clear plastic blow-up beds, outlandish metal dresses, refined S&M orgies, and Euro-psychedelic music, is often cited as the quintessential Metzger film. In fact, all that’s missing in the world of the doomed romantic Marguerite Gautier (Daniele Gaubert) is a gilded go-go cage. Fans of the 1935 Garbo version may be startled to see that Metzger’s update, underneath the wild period decor, is recognizably the same story, though Gaubert’s existential exhaustion may be less evident to an audience mesmerized by the parade of Italian haute couture and decor. (Ironically, the actress died two years after this film from cancer.)

The sex scenes in Camille 2000 are elegant softcore, but three years later Metzger shot one of the key transitional works between hard and soft porn, Score. This film, released in both hard and soft versions, was filmed in Yugoslavia with the leftover crew from Fiddler on the Roof, and part of the fun of Score is trying to reconcile the lurid, campy shenanigans with the film’s ultra-professional sheen. All the elements of a swinging lifestyle are here: a Mercedes, a European resort background, amyl nitrate and pot, a few dildos and leather accoutrements, and five characters who spend all their time in a sexual rondelay. Typical of the film’s droll attitude are the inspiring words of Elvira (Claire Wilbur) in response to naïve Betsey (Lynn Lowery), who asks how you know who to sleep with in an orgy: “First you don’t know… then you can’t tell … then you don’t care.” Gay porn fans will recognize Cal Culver, aka Casey Donovan of Boys in the Sand fame. Here the hunky Culver is the recipient of Metzger’s largesse in matching him up with Elvira’s butch bisexual husband Jack; their scenes are the “hardest” in the film. Even today, the implicit threat in these scenes is palpable – it’s like the two boys-next-door fucking – and it’s easy to imagine the straight raincoat brigade racing to the exits in distress, which is apparently what happened.

Metzger has another, more directly emotional side that’s evident in what is in many ways his masterpiece, an adaptation of Violette Leduc’s lesbian memoir Therese and Isabelle. Leduc allowed him to shoot her book only if he agreed not to “make a dirty movie” out of it. (Perhaps she had noticed his first film was called The Dirty Girls.) Leduc’s language has an arresting poetry – “A saint was licking away my soils …” is her description of a cunnilingus episode – and Metzger faithfully reproduces much of it in an overdub spoken by Therese, who, in a Brechtian touch, appears both as the troubled adolescent in love with her female schoolmate, and as a grown woman who observes and comment on what she sees. Metzger’s visual style is usually oblique, with the characters often dominated by the plush objects around them. Therese and Isabelle takes a more lyrical approach, with beautifully elaborate tracking and crane shots and velvety black-and-white photography that capture the romantic idyll of his characters. Best of all, though, is the treatment of the central, consuming relationship of two self-styled outcasts. Metzger counters an era of psycho-dykes and lesbian suicides with two beautiful, strong young women whose relationship resonates with transgressive power. The film’s unabashed presentation of the glories of the lesbian body, seen most tellingly in a love scene at night by a pond, gives Therese and Isabelle a timeless power, and shows Metzger as a consummate chronicler of the thrilling backwaters of human experience.