Nobody ever combined art and erotica more seductively or more intelligently (or more stylishly) than Radley Metzger. His 1970 movie The Lickerish Quartet may well be his masterpiece.
Questions of whether art can be porn or whether porn can be art are irrelevant when considering Metzger’s films. They so clearly and so effortlessly succeed in being both, and the two elements are combined seamlessly. Although Metzger is an American he made movies in both Europe and the US and all his movies have a flavour that is both European and American. The Lickerish Quartet is his most ambitious foray into the world of avant-garde cinema. It might be soft-core porn but it has more in common with the productions of European art film directors like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Fellini, Godard, etc, than with your average skin flick. It’s also worth pointing out that the sex is very very tame by later standards, in fact much tamer than in most modern mainstream Hollywood movies. And it’s done with a lot more style.
The narrative is fragmented, non-linear, multi-layered and extraordinarily complex. It starts with a middle-aged couple (no names are ever mentioned in this movie) watching a scratchy black-and-white stag film with their son. He’s actually the wife’s son by a previous relationship. The family lives in an enormous gothic castle, a castle so big that they themselves are in constant danger of becoming lost. The castle is the perfect setting for this movie, since it’s structured in much the same way, with lots of blind alleys, hidden rooms, staircases that seem to lead you back to where you started from. You can easily lose your bearings. The son, who appears to be about 20, finds the porno movie disgusting which simply makes it even more amusing for the parents. They are rich, bored and decadent and are perpetually searching for anything to stimulate their jaded palates.
Afterwards they visit a travelling carnival, the main attraction of which is a glamorous young woman who rides her motorcycle on the Wall of Death. When she takes her helmet off they are shocked and delighted to find that she’s the lead actress from the porn movie. This is an exciting discovery, and they simply must persuade her to come to the castle with them. They will provide her with an evening’s entertainment, watching herself in the movie. She readily agrees, but before they watch the movie the son insists on demonstrating his magic tricks. He has a considerable talent for magic, but as he explains, magic is easy, it’s reality that is difficult. He also tells the assembled company about the vision he had several years earlier, of the sufferings and martyrdom of Saint Margaret.
The entertainment doesn’t turn out quite as expected. When they run the movie they notice that it doesn’t seem quite the same as it did before, and when the beautiful blonde actress turns to face the camera, it’s not the same woman who was in the film when they watched it the previous evening!
There isn’t just one movie either. There’s another scratchy old black-and-white movie that we keep seeing, in which an American GI in World War 2 visits an Italian prostitute. And it’s the same woman again. At least it is at first. The man is one we haven’t seen before, but later this film changes as well and it’s the husband from the castle.
We also hear the story of the first meeting between the husband and the wife, but the stories each of them tell are quite radically different, as if they were from different movies. They met in the aftermath of the war, and in his version she was a prostitute, just like the woman in the second movie.
The motorcycle-riding girl from the carnival is also rather vague about her life story. The husband, the wife and the son are all fascinated by her. The wife claims her husband is impotent, but an encounter with the carnival girl in the library suggests otherwise. This is a classic Radley Metzger sex scene - visually inventive and witty as the two roll about on the floor of the library decorated with gigantic dictionary definitions of sexual activities. The carnival girl also has trysts with the son and with the wife, and they’re filmed with just a much style and wit.
As the movie progresses it starts to appear that the movies-within-a-movie are more just as real, or possibly more real, than what originally appeared to be reality. Which is the movie, and which is the audience? Who are the actors, and who is making the movie? Who is watching whom? Are the all watching each other watch each other? Has reality become illusion, or has illusion become reality? As the carnival girl says, the things that happen to people in movies aren’t real. But what is real? This might all sound terribly pretentious but Metzger has such a light touch that he gets away with it.
The Lickerish Quartet is as thought-provoking and intelligent as it is sexy and entertaining, and you can’t ask much more of a movie than that.
The good news is that most of Metzger’s movies are now available on DVD; the bad news is that most of the DVD releases have been a little disappointing in terms of picture quality. Umbrella Entertainment’s Region 4 DVD is no exception, but it’s at least acceptable and it’s a truly great movie.