A maestro of aspirational porn, Radley Metzger populated his soft- and hard-core films of the 1960s and ’70s with Continental swells whose luxe dwellings and vast expanses of land made for optimal prime pleasure domes. The 85-year-old director, who’ll be present at many of the screenings in the FSLC’s eight-film tribute, elevated his randy projects with sumptuous production values, his meticulous decor and mise-en-scène long outmoded in today’s quickie online porn.
The New York native’s Euro-chic sensibility was likely influenced by the gigs he had before becoming an erotica auteur. Metzger began his career as an editor, cutting trailers for Janus Films, the U.S. distributor of several key works during the high holy years of European art-house cinema (Bergman, Fellini, etc.). He also assisted with the dubbing of Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman (1956) and thus helped, if only in a small way, to make Brigitte Bardot an international sexpot superstar. In 1960, he founded (with Ava Leighton) his own distribution company, Audubon Films, which recut and released European skin flicks in the United States.
One of Audubon’s biggest hits was the Swedish I, a Woman, featuring Essy Persson and released in the States in 1966 — a year after Metzger’s The Dirty Girls, his sexploitation directing debut, opened. The pillow-lipped, helmet-haired Scandi-beauty Persson also stars in Therese and Isabelle (1968), Metzger’s adaptation, shot in lustrous black-and-white, of Violette Leduc’s anguished autobiographical account of her boarding-school lesbian romance. The film contains several Metzger hallmarks: prestigious European source material (earlier he had taken on Prosper Mérimée’s signature 19th-century novella with 1967’s Carmen, Baby); bodies and faces shown in reflective surfaces; outrageously dubbed voices; and plenty of girl-on-girl action. What sets T&I apart from other Metzger works, however, is its heavy, dolorous tone — the result of repurposing too much of Leduc’s metaphor-encumbered text as voice-over. The eyes may be pleased while watching the school chums go at it, the ears less so at having to take in narration like: “A saint was licking away my soils,” and “But if the pearl slipped away from her, she found it again.”
More buoyant — even though we know the title nymphet will die — is Camille 2000 (1969), Metzger’s haut-mod reimagining of Alexandre Dumas’s tragic, TB-ridden demimondaine. Filmed in Rome in blazing color (though the print I saw at the press screening had quite felicitously faded to a nice vulvic pink), Metzger’s update teems with louche jet-setters, focusing on manipulative Marguerite (Danièle Gaubert) and the layabout scion besotted with her, Armand (Nino Castelnuovo, Catherine Deneuve’s love in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Orgies are smartly staged with the grooviest furnishings: inflatable furniture, ersatz jail cells. But the greatest, most audacious touch is Metzger’s use of rack focus, the lens shifting from Marguerite’s on-the-verge-of-coming face to the vase of camellias on her bedside table. The in and out of the camera is timed to her moans; the screen itself seems to be breathing.
Metzger more boldly mixed high culture with base desires in The Lickerish Quartet (1970), which opens with a quote from theater-of-the-absurd playwright Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: “… all this present reality of yours — is fated to seem a mere illusion to you tomorrow.” Here, three personages — a man, his wife, and her delicate son — are in search of a lay, having just watched a stag film in the privacy of their Italian castle, whose interior design anticipates Uday Hussein’s aesthetic. Slumming it at a nearby carnival, they are transfixed by a female stunt motorcyclist, who they are certain is one of the women they saw in the blue movie just hours ago. The comely carny will soon make each member of the trio convulse with ecstasy, but the concupiscence is often interrupted or forestalled by both flashbacks and more intricate narrative devices, like the dissolution between life as it’s depicted on-screen and as it’s lived off-.
That distinction is also crucial to Little Mother (1971), Metzger’s mordant fictionalized version of Eva Perón’s ascendance from actress to national saint in Argentina three decades earlier; his take preceded Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita by seven years. Though not without an orgy and a few Kama Sutra positions, Little Mother is the fascinating outlier in the series, an unsparing account of political machinations. The film’s incongruities — the unnamed Latin American country is played by Croatia; the Perón surrogate, Marina Pinares, by the Teutonically accented Christiane Krüger — only enhance its bizarre appeal.
A few years after Little Mother, Metzger made another significant departure, transitioning from soft- to hard-core. (By 1976, he would shift completely to XXX, helming, under the name Henry Paris, The Opening of Misty Beethoven.) Making their first appearance in Metzger productions during the mid-’70s are full-out erections — part of what film scholar Linda Williams calls the “frenzy of the visible” in Hard Core, her invaluable book on pornography. In movies like Score (1974) and The Image (1975), thick, long dongs are sucked, stroked, and inserted into various apertures. While the latter, an adaptation of Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s s/m chronicle of the same name, fearlessly (if exhaustingly) depicts sacralized rituals involving needles, chains, and whips, the former gloriously shows something almost never seen in straight-aimed porn, then or now: two guys (both married to women, who are upstairs having fun with strap-ons and Hitachi Magic Wands) fucking, sixty-nining, and hand-jobbing each other. But even these libidinous residents of the French Riviera (well, actually the Yugoslavian coastline) need their culture: The morning after the same-sex partner-swapping, one woman reminds her husband, “There’s the new Michael Powell film at the cinema.”