Probably the most common misconception about Radley Metzger’s films is that they are “innocent,” and thus they’re treated with the same sort of bemused and detached nostalgia accorded to the amassed Faberge eggs and WWII medals of your recently deceased relatives (icons of a bygone era, made vivid only through the recognition of their obsolescence). Presumably this is because the meatiness of the films’ sexual explicitness has long been surpassed many times over, or because they come from an era where the worst consequences of anonymous sex were likely to be herpes instead of HIV. But reducing Metzger’s art-house softcore films to their prurience, while completely understandable, shortchanges his uncanny grasp of the intimate consequences, the social havoc and the lack of innocent motives that inevitably come with the introduction of sexual fulfillment, no matter how rosy and purplish. If not an original theme (not even within the limited selection of erotic art), the melancholy, socially observational films of Radley Metzger belie the saddened instincts of a director that sees infatuation and erotic discovery as evidence of both social grace and retribution. Sociologically speaking, his films are about as far removed from “innocent” as can be expected while still including nutty Eurotrash hootenannies.
The kinky “cheating lovers” melodrama The Alley Cats might not have the high-minded aim of some of Metzger’s later works (including the hardcore Pygmalion that is The Opening of Misty Beethoven), but it is drenched with his penchant for self-reflective wit. During an early party scene, the lesbian socialite Irena dismisses the kittenish Leslie’s cheating fiancée Logan by jibing, “Why don’t you go down to the bar. There’s dancing there—slow dancing. You can be dirty and respectable at the same time.” One could scarcely come up with a better epigram for the double-edged sensuality of Metzger’s films. Meanwhile, a brazen sexpot crashes a boys’ club round of cards, claiming that she’d love to play but hasn’t got anything to bet. When told to simply bet whatever she’s got, she insinuates, “What do you want? My innocence?” Her quip is matched with “Don’t bet what you haven’t got anymore.” The suggestion is treated as another joke, but rather than disprove her suspicious repute, the woman confirms it by offering her panties, which she removes in front of the entire party to place on the table. It’s a moment that turns sexual embarrassment into false empowerment, and Metzger’s cutaways to Leslie’s vaguely empathetic disapproval (and latent-lesbian interest) confirm the mixed signals. Not only because it opens, more or less, with a party scene, but Alley Cats suggests Eyes Wide Shut-in-a-major-key in its frank, sympathetic, and lamentably exciting portrayal of infidelity. Lamentable in the sense that it seems to subscribe to the viewpoint that no relationship that’s worth pursuing comes without baggage, secrets, and, as demonstrated in the spectacularly slutty sequence (foley those bitch stilettos, sound man!) where Irena whips an eager perv with her garter belt or the disturbing last act barrage of misogynistic abuse and pain. In Metzger’s world, the erotic desire for complication can even cross lines of sexual orientation.
On the flip, the lush Therese and Isabelle presents a portrait of lesbian romantic bliss that’s refreshingly indifferent to the context of patriarchy. The titular boarding school girls don’t turn to each other because they intend to rebuff the callousness or insensitivity of men (as Alley Cats’s Irena seems to), and neither does their sexual bond form out of necessity due to a lack of male contact (the coffeehouse down the street provides ample opportunity for both to attract the attention of horny—and sensitive—French students). So, with all due efficacy toward the political value of indignant lady anarchists, Metzger focuses his concerns on a more effervescent level: one of remembrance of a love lost (nudged forth by Georges Auric’s swooning, enraptured Peyton Place-esque score). Therese and Isabelle is a delicately-structured lament, flashing between the present day Therese, who is shown mournfully wandering the halls of her alma mater, and back 20 years to her great psychological debut into the world of lesbianism under the spell of the blond free spirit Isabelle. (It’s unclear as to whether or not the present day Therese remains homosexual, and Metzger reportedly scrapped an alternate ending that showed Therese’s husband waiting outside the school grounds.) Metzger juggles the two chronologies with subtle parallel movements and edits, and the sense of failure and hurt hangs over each blissful reminisce. Metzger would go on to direct far more explicit films without sacrificing eroticism, but he rarely had as powerful a helping hand as the lubricated vocal chords of Essy “Purr” Persson, whose soft, epiglottal delivery of the film’s reams of descriptive frippery during sex scenes move visual suggestion into sensual ecstasy. And the total lack of irony that characterizes the film (emotional verité) remains a welcome anomaly.
With Camille 2000, Metzger began to let his experimental impulses emerge. The film’s opening credit appears on a clapboard while a crew member reads the title (“take one”) and snaps the cast into action, giving the impression that the entire film springs naturally from its starting point, that it’s some sort of improvisational, one-take lark. Camille turns one of George Cukor’s finest melodramas (both are based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel) into a Mediterranean burlesque on the philosophy of hedonism, a Bonjour Tristesse for the languid Blowup jetset, complete with a definitive lounge-lizard score. (And, like with the party quip of Alley Cats, Metzger winks at his own mystique when one character observes the cross-section of society at an opera performance: “the cream of international society… and a bit of the scum.”) Whereas Therese and Isabelle and (to at least some extent) Alley Cats were formally grounded cinematic reflections of sexual tension, Camille 2000 is a veritable orgy of suggestive architecture, stylistic art direction and directorial flourishes. And, despite it being the tragic tale of a high-class Roman prostitute finding redemption through the love of an honest heir only to keel over and die and send said heir into a spiral of vacuous, pleasure-seeking ennui, it’s funny as hell. When Marguerite first receives oral satisfaction from her paramour Armand, Metzger accentuates her delirium by planting the camera bedside with Marguerite in the background frame left and a bouquet of blooming white camellias in the foreground frame right. As her heavy panting increases, Metzger racks focus between the two objects, letting the camera’s pulsations and the anamorphic, spatial distortions breathe along with her. But even with his newfound love of stylistic abandon, he never lets the social transactions of sex go unexposed (the film’s central theme of ownership and duty reaches its highpoint during an orgy sequence dressed up to look like a jailhouse wet dream). Like Therese, like Leslie, Armand finds that true love is no match for social obstacles.
While I'm thankful to First Run Features for bringing back these titles from "Out of Print" purgatory (they were originally released by Image), I am decidedly unthankful for their unacceptable video transfers and heavily-compressed sounding audio transfers. Of the three, Camille probably looks the best (in that it looks like a VHS dub on the LP setting, as opposed to the other two's second-generation SLP patina), but its occasionally impossible to make out some of the dialogue (even more outrageous given that almost everything was post-synched and, therefore, ought to sound extra clear and isolated). Also, there are moments of black dropouts between reels. Also, the prints are dirty and scratched. Also, there were authoring errors on Therese and Isabelle that made my DVD glitch out a couple times. Also, focus on the two black-and-white titles is poor. Also, there is significant cropping on Alley Cats, made all too obvious during the opening credits. Also, they aren't anamorphic. I guess we should be thankful that they're presented (more or less) in their original aspect ratio, and that, for the most part, the colors aren't completely distorted.
There are those who live for DVD extras, and then there are those who (like me) are more than happy trading them off for a bare-bones disc that has impeccable image and sound quality. These discs have neither, but at least their extra features aren't as bankrupt as their transfers. Each disc has theatrical trailers, production stills, Metzger biographies, and smart film notes from Nathanial Thompson. Also included on Camille 2000 are deleted scenes. And on Alley Cats you'll find alternate nude scenes.
Mucked-up transfers that might just have you looking past the titties and seeing Radley Metzger's films for the innovative erotica that they are.