In memoriam: Radley Metzger, 1929-2017

Pictured: a self-referential shot from the beginning of Camille 2000 (1969), directed by Radley Metzger, one of the wittiest and most stylish of sexploitation filmmakers.  Metzger died this weekend at the age of eighty-eight, leaving behind a body of work that represents porno at its most chic.  No other director working in 1970s exploitation cinema was so successful at making erotic films that worked as films in addition to working as erotica.  (He was probably the inspiration for Jack Horner, the Burt Reynolds character in Boogie Nights, who aspires to make pornography into high art—though the results of Horner's efforts are vastly, and hilariously, inferior to Metzger’s.)

Metzger’s early films Camille 2000 (panned by Roger Ebert) and The Lickerish Quartet (1970) are ironic and clever erotic dramas laced with dark comedy; both films also frequently make reference to themselves as films, with the characters of The Lickerish Quartet—a family of erotic connoisseurs, to borrow a phrase from Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience—repeatedly waxing philosophical about sex, screens, and spectatorship.  But such touches feel like third-rate Resnais (or fourth-rate Godard), a desperate bid on Metzger’s part to intellectually legitimize a genre that was, and still is, dismissed as trash.  In the later films—Score (1974), The Image (1975), and his magnum opus The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976)—he jettisoned the avant-garde flourishes and instead put his energy into his scripts and production design.  The mid-70s films sport literate screenplays, eye-popping art direction, and lubricious cinematography.  While other X-rated films were being made on makeshift sets and in Skid Row motel rooms, Metzger was shooting on location in Paris and Rome; Score took him and his cast to the coast of Croatia.  And his sex scenes are nearly always compelling, because they arise out of the tensions and conflicts of his characters.  Score, for example, is a slow-burner in which the erotic tension between two couples slowly mounts over the course of the film, culminating in a sexual set piece that’s as dramatically satisfying as it is arousing.        

Charting the progression of Metzger’s talent over the course of the 1970s, we see him discovering that the way to class up porn was not to experiment with film-theory gimmicks and distancing devices; it was to stage sex within beautiful make-believe worlds.  (The most cutting-edge thing about them may be their heteroflexibility: men and women in Metzger’s films often swing both ways.)  His films give us fantasy sex at its most glamorous, cosmopolitan, whimsical, delicious.  To quote Woody Allen: "if only life were like this!"

(From top to bottom: Daniele Gaubert and Nino Castelnuovo in Camille 2000; Gerald Grant and Casey Donovan in Score; Mary Mendum and Valerie Marron in The Image; and Constance Money and Jamie Gillis in The Opening of Misty Beethoven.

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