Stylish erotica doesn’t come any more stylish than the movies of Radley Metzger. Having demonstrated that softcore porn could be art, and very good art, he went on to achieve the far more difficult task of showing that hardcore porn could be art as well, and (with The Opening of Misty Beethoven in 1976) that a hardcore movie could be good enough to be judged by the same criteria by which any other movie is judged.
The Image, made in 1975, was a transitional film for Metzger. It’s borderline hardcore. The sex is most definitely real. And it deals with S&M sex. At this point you’re probably wondering why on earth you’d want to bother with something that is clearly going to be mere exploitation. But this is a Radley Metzger movie, and despite the subject matter this is not really an exploitation movie. It is in fact a serious exploration of sexuality. And being a Metzger movie, it manages to combine this serious exploration with humour, a superb visual style, complex characters and yes, that dreaded word, art. It’s a production that can seriously be compared with a movie like Last Tango in Paris, the major difference being that it’s considerably more entertaining and less pretentious.
At a rather fashionable party a man named Jean encounters an old acquaintance. There had clearly been some involvement between Jean and Claire in the past, although the exact nature of the involvement is unclear. In fact his feelings about Claire are obviously contradictory and confused. Claire has a new friend, a young and very beautiful woman named Anne. The relationship between the two women appears to be sexual, but unconventional. When he meets them together shortly afterwards, it becomes clear that Anne is Claire’s sexual slave. It also becomes clear that this relationship is consensual, and that Anne derives considerable sexual pleasure from it. Claire offers to lend Anne to Jean, telling him that he may do whatever he pleases with her.
Of course this arrangement is bound to lead to complications, especially as Claire gets much of her pleasure from watching (and at times participating in) the sexual activities of Jean and Anne. Jean is increasingly obsessed by Anne, while both Claire and Anne seem to have ambiguous emotions about the whole setup.
In the hands of most film-makers this could be a very tacky movie indeed, especially considering that the sexual content is extremely graphic, but Metzger has a sure touch and avoids that sleaziness. He also takes both the emotions and the sexual motivations of his characters seriously, and he makes no judgments.
There are so many ways that a movie such as this could come spectacularly unstuck that you find yourself waiting for the inevitable false step, but it doesn’t happen. If you can’t deal with this aspect of sexuality or with fairly explicit sexual images then you might want to avoid this one. Which would perhaps be a pity, as it’s a humane, intelligent and very stylish movie, and a very good movie as well.