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 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.