“Say hello to the Svengali of sex”
Renowned sexologist and bestselling author Seymour Love (Jamie Gillis) is approached by no-frills hooker Misty Beethoven (Constance Money) while prowling the porn theatres of Pigalle looking for inspiration. Retiring to a hotel which looks more like a makeshift medical centre, it appears he might have found it. The pair happen upon socialite Geraldine Rich (Jaqueline Beudant, apparently “very Geraldine and very Rich”), who helps him hatch a plan. Seymour’s next project will be to transform our titular, ‘sexual civil servant’ into a society girl, into the ‘Golden Rod girl’, an honour bestowed annually by playboy Lawrence Lehman. Misty proclaims the pair to be disgusting, but apparently not as disgusting as the prospect of her next client, so the unlikely trio set off for New York.
The Opening of Misty Beethoven is often cited as the best adult film ever made, which may sound like faint praise to some. We shouldn’t be too quick to condescend though, given the presence of an experienced, ‘legitimate’ director, a budget clearly in excess of contemporaneous productions and a solid, albeit borrowed, premise. There was a feeling during the ‘porno-chic’ period that the adult and mainstream worlds would ultimately merge, and while that never quite came to pass, this is the sort of production that hints at what might have been. Indeed a review from Screw at the time went so far as declaring ‘Hollywood porn is here.’
“You can’t cheat people at their own game.”
The third of five films Metzger would direct under his ‘Henry Paris’ nome de plume, the opening shots of Gillis in Paris immediately differentiate Misty from the preceding two. Indeed, it looks at times as if the wardrobe budget here exceeds the total for which Sean Costello and co were producing features back in New York. To be clear, most of Misty was actually filmed in the states (Constance Money has complained in recent years that she was promised a trip to Paris which never materialised) but the scale of the production relative to others should not be overlooked because it afforded possibilities in terms of mise en scene – location shooting, set design and so on – not available to others.
Metzger, who had already directed a quintet of landmark erotic features under his own name, was better-placed than most to exploit these resources, and it is probably fair to cite Misty as the best-made adult film of the period. Fluid camera work enables us to glide through the grounds of a supposedly-Italian villa, clever editing allows characters from one scene to comment on action occurring in the next, and we also see footage of a prior demonstration intercut with the subsequent, actual seduction. Make no mistake, Radley Metzger was a filmmaker of considerable skill and imagination.
For all that, the film is not a total success and the first half in particular grates at times. The training scenes, in which Misty is taught to fellate first dildos and then butlers, become repetitious quite quickly. The verbal exchanges between Seymour and Geraldine at times seem overwritten, as though we are watching comedy skits, and while the film is light-hearted, it can be jarring. Indeed, the juxtaposition of humour and hardcore is a recurring problem, with oral encounters occurring almost everywhere we look, even during dialogue scenes, even to the characters involved in the dialogues. I don’t think they’re meant to be arousing, and instead lend the proceedings an absurdist tone, causing one to wonder if the director is intentionally ridiculing the genre’s oral fixation.
With regards to the aforementioned borrowed premise, I can’t claim to have read Pygmalion or seen My Fair Lady but the transformation of an ugly duckling into a swan is a familiar trope and there is an argument, advanced by Laurence O’Toole among others, that it makes sense for adult films to utilise such sources. Starting with a familiar premise saves the film time filling in backstory which can otherwise be squeezed by that afforded the hardcore. This is perfectly reasonable and there’s no doubt that sex films – both hard and soft – can feel episodic as the narrative is periodically put on hold to accommodate the set-pieces. There remains the risk of problems of execution though, and in it’s final act Misty seems to rush relentlessly towards its conclusion. Having seduced Lehman and his wife, our heroine apparently leaves Seymour behind. He is crushed, reduced to moping around Pigalle reminiscing, seemingly five minutes after treating her as a plaything (at best).
“You know why people have sexual problems? They talk to goddamn much.”
It’s tempting to compare Misty with the director’s earlier films, particularly the brilliant Camille 2000, which presents a very different picture of the privileged at play. That might be something of a minefield though, as the softcore of the late-sixties is quite different to the hardcore of the mid-seventies and a commercially-minded director like Metzger will have understood that, even in the era of porno chic, audiences would have expectations he would be wise to meet. It’s notable in this context that the quipping and verbal jousting are totally set aside during the four major sexual set-pieces, which seem more convincing than the bulk of the footage that surrounds them. There appears to be genuine intimacy between Seymour and Tania (Terri Hall, who looks absolutely radiant throughout), while all parties seem suitably engaged in Misty’s encounters with a supposedly impotent art dealer and, subsequently, Mr and Mrs Lehman. Of course a cynic might suggest it’s predictable for porn stars to be more convincing in action than dialogue, and while there might be something in that, there’s no mistaking the change behind the camera during these scenes. They seem more natural, perhaps even more sincere, as though the director was happy to take a step back and capture the performance rather than choreograph every aspect of it.
On the subject of the sexual encounters, the ‘impotent’ art dealer (Casey Donovan) Misty is sent to seduce is presented as gay rather than impotent, if I’m reading the eye make-up and wardrobe correctly. It seems strange he is not referred to in those terms (perhaps it doesn’t) while Metzger is happy to have Misty penetrate Lehman with a strap-on in the next (major) scene. As for her relationship with Seymour, the final scene cements their role-reversal, with her training the latest plaything while he sits in chains by her side.
“You are the nadir of passion.”
So, is The Opening of Misty Beethoven the best adult film ever made? I’m not sure it’s a particularly meaningful question (or assertion). I do think we can advance arguments that this film is better than that – and this film is certainly better than most – but art is too subjective, we bring too much of ourselves to it, to say with any certainty that one example is ‘the best’. To acknowledge my own preferences, I don’t think a light-hearted romance – which is really what this is – is ever going to resonate with me as much as other types of narrative. It does occur that Seymour’s training is all about technique though, that he seems only to learn about love (no pun intended) when our time is almost up, and this is a criticism that could be made of the film itself. There is no denying the craftsmanship on show – I don’t think anyone making adult films then or now can compare, in that regard. It doesn’t have the seriousness of (some) Damiano though, and for me that’s a barrier. Indeed it doesn’t have the seriousness of Metzger’s best work – The Image, for example – which may or may not be a fair point of comparison. I would certainly suggest that is a more interesting example of what might have been, going back to the proposition that the mainstream would ultimately adopt the frankness of the adult world.