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.