The Image (later released as The Punishment of Anne and The Mistress and the Slave) was the last feature film to bear Radley Metzger's name before the renowned pioneering director of erotica moved into the adult hardcore terrain under the pseudonym / ‘nom de fuck’ of Harry Paris.
Metzger’s prior work, Score (1974), based on an off-Broadway play, existed in semi-hard and soft versions, but The Image was a different animal, with its focus on the sexual power struggles between a Parisian woman (Claire), her pretty young possession (Anne), and the friend (Jean) whose interest in Anne ultimately destroys a perfect slave / mistress relationship.
As Metzger admitted in an interview with Filmmag.com's Stephen Gallagher, "We [at Audubon Films] resisted X-rated movies. We felt we were way above that sort of thing. We resisted for a while, but finally we succumbed and decided to do an X-rated feature."
Before he could fully enjoy the freedom and independence of the adult world, Metzger tested the waters by adapting the Jean De Berg (aka Catherine Robbe-Grillet) novel “L’Image” and filmed semi-hard, eroticized displays of oral sex, micturating, and bondage – all reasonable allowances in perhaps the most mature, graphic film on sexual power by an American director.
Catherine Breillat traversed into the terrain decades later in Romance (1999), but Metzger’s film remains a perfect balance of art, eroticism, adult themes… and a bit of pretentiousness that feels more deliberate than accidental, such as the cheeky cutaways to spewing fountains and priapic structures to infer Jean’s current libidinous state.
Metzger’s best work involves emerging conflicts between two or three characters, and “L’Image” was an ideal source material because we follow Jean’s path as his fascination with Claire’s (Marilyn Roberts) pretty pet Anne (Mary Mendum, aka Rebecca Brooke) morphs into an obsession. Jean (gravel-voiced Carl Parker) gradually witnesses the couple’s power plays in public, and he slowly develops a desire to share Claire’s studded leather throne, which she eventually grants one afternoon in a threesome. His climactic reaction isn’t grunting or grimacing but mad laughter, and it marks his acceptance into the couple’s life, with Anne forced to balance her intimate attention and public humiliations between the two.
Prior to that raucous orgy, Jean also saw photographic evidence of Claire’s own desire to be a submissive, and he wants to see at what point will Anne break, and when will Claire show signs she’d rather be the one squatting on the floor with her hands held up high. That shift in power begins near then end, when the trio venture down into Claire’s ‘gothic chamber where Anne is punished using a mix of heated sharp objects and leather whip.
Metzger directs the scene not as a prolonged S&M session but as a lengthy dare or staring contest between Clair, the chief instigator, and Jean, who watches her poke and prod her screaming pet until he takes over with a whip.
The scene is built around waves of unending shrieks, and elegantly lit portraits of Anne’s tormentors constantly guessing and evaluating each other from afar. Jean is content being a watcher, whereas Claire intensifies Anne’s pain until Jean has no choice but to take over and stimulate Claire by furthering Anne’s suffering. That action forms the bonding moment between the two dominants.
It’s a sequence that could easy have turned out as absurd, tame, repulsive, or dated, but Metzger’s camera and fluid editing captures the psychologies of the two rivals instead of fixating on the minutia of masochism the way Takashi Miike stops his film cold purely to indulge in sexual torture (of which “Imprint,” his episode of Master of Horror, is the most extreme). Even if he had directed the film in 2011, Metzger wouldn’t have indulged in Miike moments because he cares too much about his characters’ integrity, and to reduce them as objects in a banal eroto- or psycho-sexual thriller isn’t worth his while.
There are few equivalents of literary, character-based erotic dramas about power. In Romance, Breillat beat her heroine into nothing and punctuates the drama with hard images of fellatio and a ridiculous birthing moment; Secretary (2002) is perhaps a closer cousin to Metzger’s sensibilities: director Steven Shainberg suppresses the imagery and behaviour to mere subtext, but the power plays among the characters are just as affecting.
At the end of The Image, Anne’s decision to leave is her own, and it clarifies her relationship with Claire was willing and mutual; an oral contract that could be broken at any time when a lack of pleasure or respect set in. Jean’s position is more curious, because while Claire and Anne eventually hurtle their jealousies and mutual rage onto Jean, Claire shows up at his door step the next day as a submissive because he’s the only one who comprehends her unique needs and demands.
It's no coincidence that Metzger has Claire present herself to her new master in the same kneeled and raised arms position on his rug, but there's also the physical resemblance (facially, as captured in the sleeve art) between Mendum and Roberts which, if accidental, proved fortuitous for the director, because it illustrates the two women shared an interest in role playing, and whereas Claire is now trying the bottom role for a change, one assumes Anne has gone on to reassert herself as a dominant, using the fleeting arrogance and stubbornness Jean witnessed at a streetside bookseller.
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Under the direction of an American filmmaker, The Image could only have been made during the mid-seventies because in the passing years anything softcore has been relegated to direct-to-video erotica - a lower kind of sub-genre more concerned with sleek quasi-porn images without the details, and a risk of an NC-17 rating.
Even if a filmmaker were to attempt a similar drama, he or she would be struggling to avoid the music video montages and Zalman King-styled direction that’s part of the standard in North American erotica. With no chance of existing in cinemas, and available in the disposable realm of pay TV and home video, the choice for a filmmaker is either make it stylish and soft, or go hardcore using models and performers with limited acting talent.
Metzger generally cast his films well, in terms of an actor’s physical evocation of a character, and his / her ability to be expressive through simple gestures. Mendum is very good in expressing Anne’s subtle moments of delight as well as genuine fear of Claire’s mean streak, and Roberts provides a series of sleek expressions upon which viewers can make their own judgment of whether she’s a monster, or simply playing a role to the hilt.
Former commercial actor Carl Parker (whom Metzger cast in a small role in Score) makes good use of what was likely the most substantive role of his four-film career, and he’s tailor-made for Jean, a playboy whose own mean streak is carefully extracted by Claire.
None of the actors went on to greener cinematic pastures, however, and it seems The Image was a maybe a career killer; at least in legit film circles. Pity the DVD doesn’t include a director commentary track, actor interviews, or production and cast / crew essays, because there are a lot of curious questions about its making, exhibition, and the consequences of filming semi-hard material.
We know the director spent the next 5 years making XXX porn as Henry Paris before making one straight film, The Cat and the Canary, and the tame erotic comedy-drama The Princess and the Call Girl, produced for the Playboy Channel in 1984, and his last film to date, but as for the cast, their fates are less clear, save for a handful of details in Nathaniel Thompson's new liner notes, which replace the short essay penned by Stephen R. Bissette for the 2002 DVD.
Synapse’s Blu-ray differs significantly from the 2002 DVD. The new HD transfer fixes the muted colour issue, and fans will be delighted at the degree of blues, greens, and reds. Amber shades and flesh tones are equally rich, and the details are far sharper, showing none of the compression evident in the DVD. The most notable difference occurs in the opening party scene, which is early dusk on the DVD, and early evening on the BR, with deep blue skies instead of a yellowy evening. The title cards have also been tinted to sepia instead of white, but the black background during the main credit sequence has some perceptible noise on the BR.
Additionally, whereas the 2002 DVD presented the film in 1.78:1, Synapse have presented more information from 35mm camera negative, so while the ratio is now 1.85:1, there's slightly more side information - an important issue for fans concerned the new transfer is slightly cropped.
The soundtrack offering now includes the original 2.0 mono and a 5.1 remix for those wanting to hear Mendum’s screams coming from the back of the room (oh, I know you’re out there). The director filmography and isolated music track are also carried over from the DVD.
Only quibble: most of the music cues suit the film, but by relying on stock tracks, Metzger was forced to edit cues when they needed to run longer, or repeat them verbatim – issues that could’ve been solved with an original composer. That said, the bulk of the library tracks are quite solid, and according to Thompson are “Image” by Brian Bennett, “Centurion” by Sammy Burdson, and “Forbidden Fruit” by David Gold.
Radley Metzger’s directorial output includes Dark Odyssey (1961), The Dirty Girls (1965), The Alley Cats (1966), Carmen, Baby (1967), Therese and Isabelle (1968), Camille 2000 (1969), The Lickerish Quartet (1970), Little Mother (1973), Score (1974), The Image (1975), The Cat and the Canary (1978), and The Princess and the Call Girl (1984).
As Henry Paris, his films include The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974), Naked Came the Stranger (1975), The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), Barbara Broadcast (1977), and Maraschino Cherry (1978).
For a more candid examination of Synapse's restoration of a controversial classic, see our 2002 interview with Synapse bigwig, Don May.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan