The 1970’s were a time unlike any other for the world of cinema. Audiences demographics were shifting towards a younger mindset that was open to new adventures. Filmmakers responded in kind, smashing through taboos in a way that was unimaginable just a few years earlier.
Even erotica, historically the bastard child of cinema, got in on the new freedom via the short lived era of “porno chic” ushered in by the likes of Behind The Green Door and Deep Throat. The downside of this for sexploitation filmmakers is that softcore filmmaking began to lose its popularity. Anyone wanting to retain a commercial “lure of the forbidden” quality to their work had to venture into the realm of hardcore filmmaking.
This was the position Radley Metzger found himself in during the mid-1970’s: previously controversial Metzger films like Therese And Isabelle and The Lickerish Quartet now looked genteel in the era of Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers. He would eventually direct hardcore porn under the pseudonym Henry Paris but he made the transition gradually. Metzger made an initial gesture towards hardcore with Score, which had a more explicit variant designed for the porno chic crowd. However, he really made his move a few years later with The Image, a daring piece of work that explored sadomasochism in an artful but intense style that fit the permissive 1970’s perfectly.
The Image was adapted from a pseudonymously written French novel and focuses on a romantic triangle built around sadomasochism. Jean (Carl Parker) is a writer working in Paris who finds his energies directed in a different way when he sees his old friend Claire (Marilyn Roberts) at a party. Claire has brought a mysterious but very lovely young woman, Anne (Mary Mendum), to the event. When Jean asks about her, Claire reveals that Anne is her sexual slave — and Claire also says she would be open to “sharing” Anne with him.
Thus begins a game of seduction — but it doesn’t play out in the way you expect. There is no attempt at a scenario where Jean falls in love with Anne or a twist where Anne turns the tables on her “masters.” Instead, the viewer comes to realize that Anne is as much a plot device as she is a character — and that the real seduction is taking place between Jean and Claire, who both keep upping the stakes of the master-slave game while using Anne as the totem they pass back and forth. One-upsmanship always reaches a point of no return and that’s the case in this story, which culminates in an S&M session that has decisive consequences for all members of this triad.
The Image manages to work both as art and erotica simultaneously because it puts as much focus on the psychology of sadomasochistic relationships as it does on the actual sex itself. While it is explicit, this is not done for titillation alone: the graphic nature of the sex scenes illustrates the psychological gamesmanship between the main players and acts as an extension of their characterizations. It’s also worth noting that the script doesn’t rush the viewer into the sex. It takes its time to allow us to get a sense of characters and their relationships — and then challenges our perception of those relationships as the games they play evolve.
It helps that The Image is an artfully rendered piece of work. Metzger is renowned for being of erotic cinema’s great aesthetes and his sensibility shines through in his work here. The camerawork is elegant and colorful, the Parisian settings are used to stunning effect and the film has an overall elegance that works as the sunny side of its shadowy decadence. A skillfully chosen music library score captures the mixture of elegance and lustiness the film offers. The one unfortunate choice Metzger made was to post-synch the actors’ dialogue — it gives their work a slightly unnatural air but as the film progresses and the story draws you in, it’s easy to get used to.
The performances remain pretty compelling despite the odd dubbing. Parker never becomes the hero we expect he might become: instead, he becomes more intense and domineering as the film progresses, creating a character whose excesses truly frighten the audience. Roberts represents the opposite pole, creating a character whose emotionally remote persona gives her sadistic tendencies their own dimension.
However, it is Mendum who acts as the major visual focus of the film, giving a tremendous, mostly non-verbal performance as the slave whose capacity for pain comes to define the extremes of Jean and Claire’s relationship. Her expressive face and ability to physically express pain serve the film beautifully and Metzger frequently keeps her in closeup so the audience can appreciate her skills. All three leads are to be commended for brave, complex work in a genre not always known for it.
In short, you don’t have to be a fan of erotica to appreciate The Image. All it requires is a sense of daring and an enthusiasm for filmmaking that is as daring as it is stylish.