In Hard Core, her classic study of sex on screen, Linda Williams identifies three distinct strands in the representation of sadomasochistic activity. The first, which she refers to as ‘amateur sadomasochism’, is technically primitive and aspires to realistic depictions of S&M encounters above all else. The second, which was actually quite common in hardcore during the seventies, situates a single sadomasochistic scene within a broader narrative context, perhaps one of sexual initiation or experimentation. The third, which she refers to as ‘aesthetic sadomasochism’, often draws on literary sources to explore ‘rarified sexual tastes’ and the effect on those who partake of them. A prime example of this tendency is Radley Metzger’s brilliant, taboo-busting The Image.
At a lavish literary party in Paris, a beautiful blonde catches the eye of Jean (Carl Parker), our narrator. It transpires that she is the companion of an older woman with whom he is already acquainted, and the three agree to meet the following day in the rose gardens of Bagatelle. It’s there that the the curious relationship between the women – Anne (Mary Mendum) and Claire (Marilyn Roberts) – comes into focus: Anne is dominated by Claire, subservient to Claire, and Jean, in bearing witness to the abuse, is drawn into their games.
“Forgive me, for I know what I do.”
Based on the 1956 novel by ‘Jean de Berg’, The Image was the last film Metzger would sign with his own name before adopting the ‘Henry Paris’ pseudonym and directing a quintet of highly regarded hardcore features. In some respects – well, really in one respect – it stands as a bridge between the softcore of the sixties and the hardcore of the seventies, but aesthetically it has far more in common with the former than the latter, with its European locations, literary pedigree and focus on monied elites. Its content remains transgressive though, almost fifty years later.
Metzger spoke about deliberately pushing the envelope with The Image, and selecting source material that enabled him to do so. It’s more than twenty years since I read the novel so I can’t really comment on how closely the film adheres to it, but I can confirm it – the film – contains lengthy, albeit staged depictions of bondage and domination alongside unsimulated acts of fellatio, cunnilingus and urolagnia . . . golden showers. We also see small vegetables pushed into Anne’s vagina during one of several scenes which take place in restaurants.
Considerable credit must go to the cast for having the courage to participate in such daring scenes, and for generally convincing in quite difficult roles. Carl Parker – who had a supporting role in Score (1973), the director’s previous film – is no Jamie Gillis, but manages to take Jean from interested spectator to voyeur and ultimately sadist. Marilyn Roberts – who bears a passing resemblance to Delphine Seyrig in Daughters of Darkness (1971) – has the icy demeanour one would expect from from a dominatrix, at least until she breaks. The real standout is Mary Mendum though – better known as Rebecca Brooke – who is incredible here, managing to convey complex, conflicting emotions almost entirely though her expressions and mannerisms.
Metzger, for his part, relies heavily on tight close-ups – primarily, though not exclusively, of faces – to convey the states of and complicity between the characters. It’s also clear that he took the major sex scenes – of which I’m going to say there are two – very seriously, combining the aforementioned close-ups with rhythmic editing and a driving score to imbue them with a purpose, an urgency that borders on overwhelming.
That’s not to say the film is exactly erotic, despite being beautifully rendered from start to finish. The climatic scene, for instance, in which Anne is bound, gagged and tortured with needles is a sex scene. It’s also a cinematic tour de force, with whips flailing, spotlights spinning and guitars blaring. It seems more likely to horrify than arouse the average viewer though, whatever that may be.
While the S&M scenes will undoubtedly be a barrier for some, one cannot describe that as a failing, because I’m sure they were intended to be provocative, perhaps even discomforting. If the film has a failing – and it does – it’s the series of sex scenes that occur during the second act, in which Jean avails himself of his newfound plaything, in a car, in the dressing room of a lingerie store and ultimately a restaurant. Again, I can’t remember the novel well enough to determine whether this is an inherited problem, but these scenes come at a pace one might associate with conventional pornography, and that’s a problem given the careful pacing to this point. I also think there’s a problem of tone to some of this, with these scenes lacking the intensity of those that precede and succeed them.
Metzger was always quick to credit his collaborators and I should probably do the same. They’re not as easily identifiable here as elsewhere though. He wrote the screenplay himself, adopting the Jake Barnes moniker he would retain for the Henry Paris films. The soundtrack is comprised of library tracks – admittedly well chosen library tracks – so the actual composers remain elusive. We do know the film was shot by Rene Lefebvre and that it’s a thing of beauty. Some of the credit for that doubtless belongs to the director though, given the same could be said of many of his films.
“Nothing that I like is allowed.”
The Image was hard to see for many years, due in part to its many transgressions. Now it’s more widely available, there are those who will tell it’s Metzger’s best film, and while I personally wouldn’t go that far, it’s an argument one could sustain. It’s fearless, challenging and beautifully realised. It seems preposterous to even say it now, but in the seventies there were many who believed the adult and mainstream worlds would ultimately become one, that hardcore films would somehow pull themselves out of the gutter and Hollywood directors would start to incorporate explicit sex into their films. There are a whole host of reasons that never quite happened, many of which have more to do with distribution than aesthetics, but if it had we might have seen more films like this. As it is, it remains something of an anomaly, a genuine curiosity. A glimpse of a path not taken, a future that never was.
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes:
The Image was actually written pseudonymously by Catherine Robbe-Grillet, wife of noted novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet. It was cited as a work of significant artistic value by Susan Sontag, in her influential essay The Pornographic Imagination.
Metzger recorded commentaries for many of his major works before his death in 2017. Sadly, The Image was not one of them. He does talk about it briefly during the commentary on Score though.
The Image could certainly be described as hardcore because it contains explicit depictions of human sexual activity. It doesn’t contain graphic shots of intercourse or ejaculation though, which are absolute staples of the hardcore genre. On the other hand, it depicts fetishes which are very rarely found in ‘straight’ pornography, specifically the urination.
None of the principals had long careers in front of the camera, though Mendum / Brooke is certainly the best known of the three, thanks to her work with Joe Sarno and Mex Pecas.
‘Jake Barnes’ is the protagonist of Hemingway’s brilliant ‘The Sun Also Rises.’
While The Image remains very unusual in melding arthouse aesthetics and explicit imagery, a number of ‘mainstream’ – really, they’re nothing of the sort – European directors have incorporated such imagery into their work in the last twenty years or so. I’m thinking of Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noe and Lars Von Trier.
It surprises me that no-one has written a book on Metzger, though perhaps that day will come. I read a number of interviews with him while preparing my reviews for Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet, which are referenced there accordingly.
The only book I referred to specifically for this review is Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible” by Linda Williams (University of California Press, 1999).