I first learned of director Radley Metzger while watching a 1975 Henry Paris film called The Opening of Misty Beethoven. This was a hardcore porn film, often considered to be the Citizen Kane of hardcore. It wasn’t the Citizen Kane of anything really, but had huge ambitions on being more than required. First, it was based on Pygmalion and really did try to follow the lines of Bernard Shaw even when linguistics were made difficult due to oral sex. Second, it was shot and edited with a real sense of cinematic craft, wit and passion. Despite the material, despite the budget and genre requirements, Henry Paris made a film that was about as good as was possible.
I wanted to see what else this “Henry Paris” had done. Perhaps he had “escaped” the hardcore genre, and ended up doing a film for Roger Corman? The truth is, he had no need for a Roger Corman, since he was already a Corman in his own right. Paris was the hardcore film pseudonym for the quite successful Radley Metzger, a striking filmmaker who had begun his career with arty dramas before moving into softcore erotica often based on classic literature. In the ’70s, he moved into making hardcore films under the “Henry Paris” label, and made five very distinctive films that include what is probably his real Citizen Kane, the surrealistic Barbara Broadcast.
Along with his other hardcore titles, The Image was originally released in both hardcore and softcore versions to take full advantage of the market. I first saw this film in a very grainy and desaturated DVD titled The Punishment of Anne. While the content appears to be the same, visually this new Blu-ray release from Synapse is nothing short of breathtaking.
Based on the novel by “Jean De Berg” (the non de plume of Catherine Robbe-Grillet), the story is very much what you might expect from this genre. Going back to Pauline Raege’s The Story of O and even further back to Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, these stories present a voyeuristic tour of the world of the decadent rich and their very private and often perverse games involving power and sex.
The Image deals with power and sex united though sadomasochism. When Jean (Carl Parker) first sees Anne (Mary Mendum) at a typically lavish party in Paris, he is immediately drawn to her. She seems to be private and yet on display at the same time. It turns out that she is the sexual slave of Jean’s old friend, Claire (Marilyn Roberts) and soon Jean finds himself being drawn to their secret world like a moth to the flame. As par the course, Claire’s complex motivations and desires become harder and harder to feed and she begins to escalate the sadism to inhuman levels which are all the more shocking due to Anne’s willingness to play along.
Metzger’s visual treatment of The Image goes beyond his work in Misty Beethoven and harks back to his earlier, more formal films like Therese and Isabelle and Camille 2000. But here he combines his amazing sense of visual composition and rhythmic editing with a sincere attempt to examine this complex sexual triangle. Metzger and his cast are brutally direct and quite fearless in telling this story. There are few films that venture seriously into the areas that this one does. Metzger stylizes, but refuses to let the sex scenes descend into black comedy in order to let the viewer off the hook. In this way, The Image becomes a very odd experience to watch, especially when our protagonist Jean becomes a willing participant in some of the more violent activities. The character steps away from being our guide to the action, and steps into the action himself, leaving the viewer alone to make up their own mind about what is being presented.
Held against previous versions on DVD, including Synapse’s own previous release, this Blu-Ray of The Image is clearly its definitive version. Synapse Films have indicated that the high-definition transfer has been struck from the original 35 mm camera negative, rather than merely ported over from the previous DVD, and it makes for quite a difference. The visuals are dazzling, colors pop in every shot, and the travelogue aspect of the film can now be fully appreciated. There are amazing shots of the roads all around the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe that allow the viewer to actually see how one could make their way around there; this is all so cleaned up that details deep in the shots can be read. The film’s many scenes in dark rooms or night streets are also fantastic, with much clarity amid deep blacks. Synapse, here, sets a perfect example of how to treat a vintage-age film.
The soundtrack, in Dolby 5.1, is remarkably crisp, given the era and budget of The Image. The film has been obviously post dubbed. If anything, the clarity of the track on the Blu-ray makes this even more obvious. This takes nothing away from the film, though, except give it the impression of being a foreign film which it, indeed, does resemble.
Synapse does not add much in this department. A commentary by Metzger would have obviously been the big catch, but in lieu of that we get a comprehensive filmography, and a new set of liner notes by Mondo Digital scribe Nathaniel Thompson.
The Image is one of the essential works of erotic cinema. That it works on the level of style and substance is a testament to Radley Metzger as a filmmaker. The Synapse Blu-Ray release is likely to be the definitive one for a long time to come, and though it may not be a film for everyone, it deserves to be appreciated by an audience that spans beyond that of erotic cinema.
~ by Brian Holcomb