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.