It says a lot about the myopic attitudes some people have to erotica that they will express surprise when confronted with a Radley Metzger film, either seeking to dismiss it as pretentious pornography or as some sort of accidental fluke. The idea that a talented, stylish filmmaker could choose to work in the field of erotic art is beyond the tiny levels of comprehension of some critics – often British, I find – who seem to feel that they have to snigger like schoolboys before dismissing anything vaguely sexy.
But that’s exactly what happened, and of all Metzger’s films, The Lickerish Quartet is probably the most confounding for critics. Not because it’s his best work (that’ll be The Image) but because it defies every conventional clichéd attitude towards ‘porn’.
For a start, there’s very little sex in the film. In fact, for the first 45 minutes or so, the only nudity is seen at a distance from proceedings, in the form of black and white stage movies that dysfunctional husband and wife (Frank Wolff and Erika Remberg) watch with their alienated son Paolo Turco. After debating what kind of people would make such films (an argument Metzger was surely very familiar with), they visit a local carnival and become convinced that a female motorcycle rider (Silvana Venturelli) they see on the wall of Death is the same girl who had appeared in the blue movie. They invite her back to their palatial castle in the hope of humiliating her. But things quickly begin to get very strange, as the film starts to explore the idea of false memory, mistaken identity and perceptions of reality.
The Lickerish Quartet is a remarkable piece of work. A teasing, complicated, mysterious puzzle of a film that plays with our ideas of what is or isn’t real. The performers in the stag film change according to who is watching, toying with our sense of interpretation, and the film takes digs at the lies that people build around themselves – the judgement of others by hypocrites. It also toys with our sense of reality. How much of what happens in the film really happens, and how much is the individual fantasy of the central characters is open to question. There’s even the possibility that the unnamed girl doesn’t exist at all.
Metzger handles this with his usual sense of sumptuous, cold elegance. This most European of American directors has a style that is very much his own – repressed emotions, stylish visuals and playful sexuality combine in a unique way here. Venturelli, as icily gorgeous as a Hitchcock blonde, is certainly convincing as an object of desire – she’s pretty stunning naked. The sex, of course, is strictly softcore (this was the last of Metzger’s films not to feature any hardcore scenes) and rather tame, but this is more about turning the audience on mentally than physically I suspect. There are remarkable visual moments – the library set is pretty breathtaking, the castle location astonishing – and Metzger’s decision to post-dub the dialogue (his multi-national cast not all being perfect English speakers) actually adds a strange sense of unreality to the proceedings. Combined with a very Sixties Euro score, and it makes the film seem closer to the works of any Euro art director of the era that you care to name than the mere sexploitation it is often dismissed as.
Arrow’s new edition, mirroring the US version from Cult Epics, gives this great film the attention it deserves. With a commentary track from Metzger, behind-the-scenes footage, 30 minutes of alternative scenes shot for more prudish markets and a comparison between the original sound and the dubbed version, it makes for a solid package that should keep his fans more than happy.