Following the success of Camille 2000 (1969), Metzger returned to Italy the following year to direct The Lickerish Quartet (1970), another sumptuous film which takes full advantage of the technical and geographic resources success had made available to him. Unlike its predecessor, which was based on a literary source and quite emotionally direct, it’s a rather teasing affair that jumps around in time and space, that makes extensive use of a film-within-a-film footage and calls into question our ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.
Opening with choppy black and white footage approximating a stag film, we are introduced to three of our four principles – man, woman and boy – debating the merits and logistics of the action as it unfolds. Venturing out to a carnival thereafter they are astonished to encounter one of the girls they have seen onscreen and hit on the idea of inviting her back, of watching the film in the presence of its star. She accepts their invitation and agrees to dine with them, though on a second viewing the film seems changed: faces are obscured and the identity of the lead – which had seemed clear-cut – is now anything but.
“This looks like something out of an Italian movie.”
For years I had believed the Lickerish Quartet to be based on Luigi Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’, even going so far as to read the supposed source in the hope of shining a light on the film’s many mysteries. In fact, now I consult the credits more closely, it begins with a quote from Pirandello but is actually based on a (presumably unpublished) story by the director himself, adapted for the screen by Michael DeForrest.
The central proposition seems to be that the audience can affect the action onscreen, bringing multiple perspectives, hopes and fears to the act of viewing, and constructing meaning in so doing. This is apparent from the opening scene – albeit perhaps not on a first viewing – when the woman (Erika Remberg) seems to influence the unfolding narrative, first by commenting that it looks like it was made during the war and then by speculating the performers are probably prostitutes. As if by magic, a soldier appears and approaches a woman – the woman they will later meet – whose posture and dress suggest she may be soliciting.
The idea that the spectator plays an active role in constructing meaning is common today and would often be described as post modern, as would the way Metzger draws attention to the mechanics of filmmaking. We see the ‘same’ stag film on multiple occasions, though on the second viewing the framing has changed and on a third the cast has. While the audience changes – to a greater or less extent – each time around, the dialogue doesn’t necessarily change with them, with questions as to the film’s origins and merits being asked again and again. The physical components are also plain to see, in the projector the characters gather around, in the film canisters they reach for, in the screen the camera repeatedly pans behind. Everything we see tells us to question everything we see.
It’s worth noting that none of the characters are given names, and what little backstory they offer either cannot be verified, in the case of the girl, or is openly disputed, in the case of the family. We might be able to piece together the root of the latter’s trauma through wartime footage in which they gradually appear, but the girl (Silvana Venturelli) remains an enigma throughout, and she’s the centre of the film. One might even wonder if she is of this earth, given the way she appears and disappears without warning. My suspicion is she is not, that she actually represents some sort of divine being intent of alleviating their problems – the man’s alleged impotence, the woman’s avowed issues with intimacy and the boys seeming reluctance to embrace the adult world – but it’s not an interpretation I would stake a lot of money on.
“Crudity is in the eye of the beholder.”
I should acknowledge – in case the name of the director and frequent references to stag films were not enough of a clue – that The Lickerish Quartet is an erotic film, both in terms of themes and execution. I’m sure Metzger was repeatedly challenged with regards to the content of his films, and it’s hard not to interpret the stag film motif and commentary of those watching it in this light. Some may see the presentation of bare flesh as disgusting, while others may counter that is very much in the eye of the beholder.
On the subject of bare flesh, there is significantly more nudity here than there had been in previous films. In fact I think there’s more nudity in the (admittedly lengthy) pre-credit sequence than there was in the entirety of Camille 2000. All of the principles were willing to doff their clothes for their art, despite Frank Wolff and Erika Remberg – both of whom are excellent, by the way – being well past the first flush of youth by the time the sixties gave way to the seventies. Paolo Turco and Silvana Venturelli posses(ed) the kind of youthful bodies we are more accustomed to seeing on screen, and it remains a mystery why the latter – who is absolutely stunning and has real screen presence – made so few films. Incidentally, anyone bothered by depictions of human sexuality might want to skip the next couple of entries in the director’s filmography.
If Metzger’s name on a film’s credits offers a clue to its content, it offers assurance as to its quality, particularly its aesthetic quality. Like its predecessor, The Lickerish Quartet is a joy to behold, a cavalcade of glorious tracking shots, this time in and around the majestic Castello Piccolomini. Enrico Sabbatini was again on hand to dress the set and the cast, benefiting the production considerably in so doing. The beautiful cinematography is the work of Hans Jura, and the lush score was composed by Stelvio Cipriani, whose work on the brilliant Femina Ridens (1969) brought him the attention of the director.
“Don’t take it so seriously – it’s only a film.”
The Lickerish Quartet is another beautiful film, displaying Metzger’s taste, technical and organisational prowess. It’s a film that plays with the audiences’ perception of time and space, fantasy and reality, and reveals greater levels of meaning on repeat viewings. Or does it? Can we say with any certainty that the dysfunctional family unit was formed in a brothel, that the boy once saw his father shoot a man, and that the girl’s time with the trio has erased the scars of the past? I’m not sure we can, and it was noticeable that Metzger was unwilling to be drawn on these matters while recording the commentary track that appears on the Cult Epics blu ray from 2011. It makes me wonder if the film is actually more of a ruse than a riddle, best approached as a treat to be savoured rather than a puzzle to be solved.
WordPress does not lend itself to formal footnotes:
There are a number of clues that the girl is ‘not of this earth.’ For instance, she arrives at the castle wearing a white one-piece and without any obvious luggage, yet her clothes change repeatedly thereafter, as she moves from one family member to another. She also seems to have insights into the family and their backstory, asking early on ‘who has the gun?’
If the girl’s time with the family is intended to heal them, either individually or collectively, one might expect to see some evidence of this at the film’s conclusion. To be fair, we do see the man and woman having sex but it is not clear how to interpret this, given it forms part of a stag film.
Metzger’s Audubon Films actually distributed Piero Schivazappa’s Femina Ridens in the US as ‘The Frightened Woman’.
It surprises me that no-one has written a book about Metzger, and I can find little in the way of critical essays online. The following were helpful in preparing this piece though.
Porn Before It Was Chic: An Interview with Radley Metzger, at BlackBook.com
Interview: Radley Metzger on Score, Camille 2000 and More, at Slant Magazine
As mentioned in the body of the review, Metzger recorded a commentary with Michael Bowen to accompany Cult Epics’ 2011 release of the film.