“Crudity is in the eye of the beholder.” So says Erika Remberg in the opening scene of Radley Metzger’s 1970 softcore feature The Lickerish Quartet, one of a string of Metzger films that attempted to bring artistry to erotica at a time when cinema was open to that. Remberg is referring to a pornographic film that she watches with her husband Frank Wolff in front of their milquetoast grown son Paolo Turco, but she could also be describing the guiding principles of Metzger, a director who dealt with sex frankly and creatively in his long career, which extended to a small handful of hardcore films, credited to his pseudonym “Henry Paris.” In The Lickerish Quartet, a tentatively liberated family meets circus daredevil Silvana Venturelli and is convinced she was in the film they just watched. So they invite her back to their opulent country mansion, hoping they can prove their above-it-all worldliness via a weekend romp.
The Lickerish Quartet was an international production, dubbed into English, and the dialogue frequently sounds stilted and artificial. The movie is more than a little pretentious too, as Metzger toys with perception and reality by having the family’s little porno reel transform every time they look at it, with events happening in different order, the cast changing, and incidents from the family’s past slipping onto the celluloid. But the sexually charged scenarios are imaginatively staged and witty: the snobby Wolff has sex with Venturelli in a secret library decorated with blown-up dictionary definitions of obscene words; the boyish Turco has his encounter outdoors in the sunshine, in a romantic haze; and the vain Remberg has her tryst with Venturelli while the dirty movie that started this whole adventure plays against her naked body. And when the question of what constitutes a “fantasy” threatens to get too heady, Metzger brings on another set of jaded aristocrats to repeat the dialogue from the opening scene verbatim, including the line “Don’t take it so seriously; it’s only a film.”
Metzger’s 1975 film The Image goes deeper into the psychology of desire, without so much of the head-tripping. Based on a Catherine Robbe-Grillet novel, The Image stars Carl Parker as a writer who has a chance meeting with his old friend Marilyn Roberts and her young sex slave Mary Mendum, and subsequently becomes obsessed with getting Mendum to submit to him the way she submits to Roberts. But what starts as a game of public humiliations and dares turns dark when Parker realizes just how severely Mendum allows Roberts to punish her. He begins to feel compassion for their mutual plaything.
The Image can be fairly pretentious at times too—never moreso than in a scene where Parker sits by a spurting fountain and has dreamy flashbacks to Mendum pissing—but it’s also beautifully photographed, and finds the erotic possibilities in something as simple as Mendum caressing the petals of a rose. Most of all, The Image continues Metzger’s career-long fascination with how the monied try to take a detached, civil approach to sex, only to find that passion overwhelms them the same way it does the grubby commoners. Everyone is so sophisticated, until the fucking starts.
Key features: The Lickerish Quartet Blu-ray includes a Metzger commentary track (with historian Michael Bowen), and featurettes that compare different cuts and dubs; The Image Blu-ray contains no special features.