Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New on Blu: "Radley Metzger’s Erotica Psychadelica"

On-screen eroticism is, so often, such a drab and joyless affair, so utterly free of real color and actual pleasure, that those who create sexual cinema of genuine wit and fun tend to stand out from the pack. Such is the case with Radley Metzger, the incomparable New York distributor-turned-filmmaker who had not one, but two careers in adult cinema: under his own name, directing smart and tastefully “softcore” adult films, often shot in exquisite international locations with impeccable production values, and under the pseudonym of “Henry Paris,” working the other side of the softcore/hardcore divide, yet still bothering to inject those pictures with humor and style. Cult Epics’ new Blu-ray box set Radley Metzger’s Erotica Psychadelica collects three of his finest efforts from the former career, while providing some hint of his metamorphosis into the latter.

First up is the 1969 effort Camille 2000, a title taken not to indicate some sort of futuristic take on Dumas, but from an exchange of dialogue (“You’ll forget about me after the next girl.” “I couldn’t. Not after the next two thousand”). But it is a late-sixties interpretation—and a fairly close one—of that classic story; Metzger liked to borrow his stories from classic materials, using the situations and spines of those tales, and then using the freedoms of his time to go a step or two further than their authors. Camille 2000 is thus, still, the tale of the doomed love of Marguerite and Armand, spiced up with double-entendre dialogue (there’s a wonderful early exchange between the two, in a dress shop, about a particular dress being neither “original” nor “exclusive”), vivid sexual encounters, and an abundance of swinging (and sometimes silly) fashions and groovy music cues. (It is really the only film of the three that truly lives up to the box set’s title.)

The adaptation is skillful and the skin is plentiful, though it should be noted Ratzger appears steadfastly disinterested in shooting sex and nudity for their own sake—each love scene employs some kind of visual or aural effect, be it overhead photography, multiple mirrors, or (most memorably), a wonderful sequence which conveys Marguerite’s ecstasy by racking focus between her in the background and flowers in the foreground, the shifting focus timed to her moans. It’s both clever and hot, a standout scene. Their first encounter, by the way, is prefaced by a surprisingly effective dramatic scene of Marguerite pleading with Armand not to love her; the scene is proof positive that a little bit of characterization goes a long way, because when they make love shortly thereafter, it is indisputably sexier and more interesting.

It’s not all high drama, of course; there’s a marvelously hedonistic quality to the picture, particularly in the kitschy party scenes. But the last of those, a bondage-heavy affair following the couple’s break-up, has some heavy-duty psychosexual content—how Armand uses a pretty blonde to make Marguerite jealous, and how her new paramour makes her watch. This is proto-Lynchian territory, and is utterly fascinating; the business that follows (a high-stakes card game and the expected, tragic conclusion) is fine, but less compelling. The picture has reached its climax (if you’ll pardon the pun) much earlier.

It’s the rare erotic film that opens with a quote from Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, but Metzger’s next film, The Lickerish Quartet, does just that—and it even makes sense, in retrospect. This 1970 film is a smaller-scale production, though still handsomely mounted and lavishly produced, and traffics in seemingly more personal subject matter, working up a meta-movie construction that is carefully set up and savvily executed. The story is simple: A man, his wife, and their adult son watch a porn loop (the son is disgusted; the father chastises him thus: “One day, you’ll find out that crudity is in the eye of the beholder”) before going out to a carnival, where they become convinced that a female stunt rider is the woman from the film. They invite her home, planning to show her the film and get her response, though the loop appears to have somehow changed in their absence. No matter; she proceeds, meticulously, to seduce each and every one of them.

Silvana Venturelli, as the mystery woman, is unreasonably beautiful, and Metzger never misses an opportunity to get her out of her clothes. But it’s also a real (and deceptively simple) performance; at first, there doesn’t seem to be much there, but we realize that this woman is a chameleon, shifting for her conquests, a short-skirted temptress for the man of the house, an icy Hitchcock blonde for the button-up wife. The filmmaking is impressive—there’s some successful avant-garde cutting, plenty of smooth camerawork, and evidence of the filmmaker’s continuing obsession with mirrors. More interestingly, he’s getting into some deep thematic water with perception, playing with the edges of the frame and the boundaries of his characters’ realities. (There is also some rather on-the-nose Freudian symbolism, your typical gun=penis stuff.)

But the picture isn’t obnoxiously smug about its own cleverness; its primary job is to entertain and arouse, and it does both well. There’s a bit more male nudity than we might expect, and the framing and playing of the library seduction sequence is terribly erotic. But again, the filmmaker knows that sexy and graphic aren’t always the same thing—perhaps the most sensual image in the picture is that of a quivering navel.

That said, Metzger was ready to get a good deal more graphic with his next picture, a film adaptation of the off-Broadway sex comedy Score. (Trivial sidebar: the original stage cast included one “Sylvester E. Stallone.”) The opening narration sets the scene: “in the village of Leisure, in the land of Play, deep within the erogenous zone.” (Actually, it’s Croatia.) We’re introduced to two couples, experienced swingers Jack (Gerald Grant) and Elvira (Claire Wilbur) and naïve Betsy (Lynn Lowry) and Eddie (Calvin Culver), and the introductory sections give us some character beats and witty banter (“Oh, drugs?” “Say pharmesuticals, dear, it’s more genteel”). A visit from a telephone repairman (complete with sexy sax) is the kind of clichéd porno set-up that Ratzger usually steers clear of, though he at least puts a spin on it.

However, that is all set-up for the second half of the film, which throws the two couples together for a group scene, and does not pair them off into the couplings we might expect. It seems that Jack and Elvira have a bit of a competition going over whether Elvira can get Betsy into the sack; Jack, meanwhile, aims to bed closeted Eddie, though he offers up the young man as a prize to Elvira if she pulls off her seduction.

So Metzger ends up throwing everything into the mix: Bisexuality, swinging, bondage, voyeurism, adultery, gamesmanship, toy play, the whole nine yards. The script (by Jerry Douglas, adapting his play) keeps its wit most of the way through, with some giggly byplay in their four-scene that belies the material’s theatrical roots, though with enough fast cutting to keep it from playing as too stage-bound. (Also, kudos for the eyebrow-raising Will Rogers reference.) The intercutting of the two same-sex seductions is adroit—fast and funny, with interchanging lines, questions posed in one scene and answered in the other, alternate stories told to suit each conquest.

Some of the acting is a bit overcooked (a charge that could be leveled at Lickerish as well); Wilbur, in particular, tries a little too hard with her self-conscious vamping. But it’s still a funny and sexy romp. Most admirably, the picture is refreshingly free with its couplings; find me a movie today (even among big-budget erotica) that treats its bi-male and bi-female couplings with this kind of equal eroticism. That quality may very well turn off some viewers, but it seems perfectly natural and appropriate to the vibe of the material, although it must be noted that Eddie’s imagined inserts of Betsy late in the sex scene are a bit of a coup-out (we certainly didn’t see her imaginging him in Elvira’s place).

Unfortunately, Cult Epics has chosen to include the poorly edited (the cuts are incredibly obvious due to undisguised jumps in the music track) “softer” version of the film in this box set, though they have previously released the full, uncut version on Blu-ray; I’m not sure why this choice was made, unless we can presume (probably safely) that they had a bunch of extra copies of the softcore disc laying around the warehouse. But even in the form we’ve got here, the sex is still pretty graphic—marking the picture as a clear intermediate step between the softer sensuality of a Camile 2000 and the all-out hardcore of his “Henry Paris” films, which came about, according to Metzger himself, as a result of the box office failure of Score.

Though all of the films in the Radley Metzger’s Erotica Psychadelica set have been released previously (and the new CD, while nice, certainly doesn’t warrant a double dip), it’s still a wonderful introduction to the cinema of Metzger, a genuinely gifted filmmaker who is thankfully getting his due these days. Stylish, fun, and unquestionably sexy, these films are a time capsule: of a specific cultural moment, and of a time when erotic cinema was capable of genuine artistry.

"Radley Metzger's Erotica Psychadelica" is available now on Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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