The erotica genre is difficult to master. Good films from it are far and few between, mainly because the concept of a heightened sense of sexuality (often a prominent theme of these pictures) gives way to damaging the strength of the plot (if there was any plot to start with, that is). Most filmmakers and audiences look down upon this genre and people from the former category exploit it, due to which the majority of erotica cinema is sleazy, plot-less, and sex-driven idiocy. Radley Metzger is a filmmaker I respect quite a bit because he brought into sexual, near-pornographic soft-core films a strange, inviting sense of feeling.
He directed movies that held their primary objective as arousal, but his examination of the act of lovemaking and the emotions surrounding it made his films attractive, different, immersive, and surprisingly, very well made. His exploration of sex in cinema is unique, with secrecy, shady looks, mysterious characters, and excellent soundtracks being their trademark features. I consider Metzger to be the king of this particular genre, because his genius is apparent in his work, and that definitely isn’t something I go around saying everyday, especially for features of the erotica distinction. Below is the list of top Radley Metzger movies, ranked.
1. The Image (1975)
The Image is a BDSM feature, with a twist. It has three main players (Metzger also made other films like Score and The Lickerish Quartet, both of which had more than two protagonists), including a man named Jean, his old lesbian friend Claire, and her slave, Anne. The film’s take on sadomasochistic relationships is very closed, in that the style shrouds the plot and characters in mystery. We discover more about Claire and Anne as and when Jean does, but we still have many questions about the peculiar couple that stand even after the film ends.
The Imageis dangerously effective in what it seeks to achieve, and it exploits Mary Mendum’s young, youthful character in ways like no other film has ever come close to trying. Torture, suppression, thrashing, forced sex relationships, etc. make this picture quite hard to watch, but the overall intrigue gets you to stay. I personally consider this to be the greatest pornographic film of all time, because it stays true to its themes throughout, carrying a dark, morbid undertone with it at all times, and sports some excellent casting choices, all directed by Metzger’s artistic visual eye. Oh, and the soundtrack is just exceptional, just like the plot and pacing of this feature. Think 50 Shades of Grey (2015), but good.
2. Score (1974)
Score is definitely the most entertaining and engaging feature that Metzger got around to making, and this is the one I’d recommend to the couples. For starters, the soundtrack here is irritatingly catchy (the man really knew how to pick songs and scores for his films). Following one of the best plots that an erotica film has ever had (in terms of easily melding with the themes and style that come along with this heading), the film is both interesting and compelling an experience. This one has to do with a married couple that slowly realizes their compulsive requirement not just for each other, but extramarital same-sex intercourse as well in order to satisfy their sexual desires.
Therefore, they do the smart thing and invite other couples in their neighborhood to come by their place and get significantly high, so that they can divide/share the partners between themselves to have as much fun as they possibly can (this is what they keep ‘score’ about). Seriously though, this picture has a really immersive screenplay (they use the word ‘svengali’ there, and I love that word) with characters who aren’t all stupid. The two female leads are absolutely stunning (especially Lynn Lowry, who’s one of the cutest women in film I’ve come across), and the guys aren’t too bad. Basically, this is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) if it were an erotic fantasy.
3. The Lickerish Quartet (1970)
If Last Year at Marienbad (1961) were a softcore erotica feature, this is probably what it would look like. The Lickerish Quartet is soused in a visual style so familiarized to those who have seen a good couple of Radley Metzger’s pictures. There’s even that added sense of sedation that I really like about his films here. Having to do with a serious plot that deals with identity loss and a resultant switch-around, Quartet is less of a porno than it is a straight-faced art film. As exciting and entertaining as it is, it lacks the grimness and luridness that its ambitions demand, and somewhat fall flat in those aspects. Nevertheless, it’s mighty intriguing, and quite the think-piece. It looks beautiful, and its pace is well measured. Recently, following Metzger’s passing this year, the film has garnered significantly higher appreciation for it than before. The general consensus agrees that this is his best work, but I would have to disagree. It definitely is his dreamiest work, which is a big plus, so there’s that.
4. Therese and Isabelle (1968)
Needless to say (since it is quite evident from the previous entries on here), Radley Metzger was deeply influenced by the avant-garde films that came around the time he went into the business. Note here the way he depicts moments of sexuality, which feel very un-pornographic, despite the overall intention being clear. Metzger relates to us a story involving two lesbians who discover their sexuality and love for each other, in a boarding school, as bits and pieces are narrated to us (Metzger’s filmography usually instilled into it this distinctive narrative style that worked its way into setting the tone). Though the film is graphic, it isn’t distasteful or exploitative, and everything seems to be in its place with a purpose to serve. Therese and Isabelle is quite a poetic endeavor, and despite its flaws, the intensity required to tell this sort of tale is present, and that in itself is captivating, offering a romantic, and almost somber an experience.
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5. Camille 2000 (1969)
Camille 2000 is gorgeous to look at. The set pieces and the architecture are major stand-outs, and they have been filmed beautifully. While I usually praise Metzger’s dark, inventive screenplays, I wasn’t too pleased with the writing that backed this picture up. For a story that has cinematic vigour, the characters and dialogues just don’t seem to cope up. Metzger’s fascination with surrealism is something he tries to carry out here, with strange imagery and editing choices, but they feel out of place, which ultimately leads to the overall movie being a confused mess. I’ve always appreciated Metzger for injecting a sense of surety and confidence in his films, and the case isn’t any different here. Having to do with a man’s relationship with a sexually (and socially, sure) active dame, the film hits all the necessary marks when it comes to actually showing the sex (there’s a particular moment in there with 5 mirrors that I really admire). The film has that old Metzger trippiness, I’d say, but despite it trying, I don’t think it amount to anything special, especially in comparison with the master’s other works.
6. The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976)
This is the quintessential sex comedy. The only other (similar) film I can think of that’s as good as this is Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy from the same year. Metzger’s previous pictures had this almost macabre sense surrounding them, but he abandoned all that to create this near-exploitative picture, which appears to exist in its own little sex-driven world. Lacking the sophistication and heightened “maturity” that the rest of his filmography possesses, The Opening of Misty Beethoven wins because of its hilarious screenplay and twisted perception of reality. I would like to note that this film is closer to a B flick in comparison to the rest of Metzger’s movies, and artistic excellence is not its strong suite. There’s nothing awfully unique about this feature, and I guess that could be considered a flaw. Metzger used a fake name (Henry Paris) for himself in the credits, because of how different this film was from his other stuff. The Opening of Misty Beethoven is an example, though, of how far filmmakers go to show what they want to show, and its pretty entertaining, so there’s that too.
7. Carmen, Baby (1967)
Early Metzger films are notable for just how campy they were in their approach towards their subject materials. In this case, the film was an adaptation of an opera titled Carmen, and added to this inspiration was a sexual edge. Carmen is a seemingly care-free prostitute with sinister intentions that surface when a naive policeman enters her locality and gets her arrested. The film opens and closes well, with (as is to be expected) an excellent soundtrack taking up decibels in the background, and a rather well structured storytelling method (Metzger shifted to America a little while before this film’s release so that he could indulge in more creative adult features). Sadly, the second act loses me, despite being excellently paced and filmed, because it distracts from the overall mood of the picture, and it feels a little less captivating. Like I said though, the finale is pretty cool, and I found the experience to be quite enjoyable, though it lacked the artistic upper hand Metzger would display in his later films.
8. Little Mother (1973)
Little Mother is a film riddled with flaws and shortcomings, but I think it’s an important and necessary watch when going about Metzger’s filmography. Maybe it’s because of how the director experimented with melding politics into exploitative cinematic elements, which is an interesting turn, considering films of this particular genre. Dealing with a woman rising in power using her body as a weapon, the film is blatantly sexist and undermining, which drastically affects the plot and storytelling. Metzger’s style shines brightly though, with dark, shadowy cinematography, glossy lighting, and as always, a good soundtrack. There’s little to take home from Little Mother, but its intentions are still worthy of applause, despite the final realization having some major issues.
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