The eight-film series This Is Softcore: The Art Cinema Erotica of Radley Metzger, running through Wednesday, opens today at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center with Carmen, Baby (1967), Metzger‘s “take on Prosper Mérimée’s 19th-century novella that inspired the Bizet opera Carmen,” as Stephen Holden notes in the New York Times. “Uta Levka plays the Gypsy temptress who, much to the distress of the policeman who loves her, sleeps her way to the top of the social ladder in 1960s Spain. The movie was the first and most successful example of Mr. Metzger’s formula, which combined high-gloss production values with seductive erotica.”
“The New York native’s Euro-chic sensibility was likely influenced by the gigs he had before becoming an erotica auteur,” writes Melissa Anderson in the Voice. “Metzger began his career as an editor, cutting trailers for Janus Films, the U.S. distributor of several key works during the high holy years of European art-house cinema (Bergman, Fellini, etc.).” Camille 2000 (1969) is “Metzger’s haut-mod reimagining of Alexandre Dumas’s tragic, TB-ridden demimondaine. Filmed in Rome in blazing color (though the print I saw at the press screening had quite felicitously faded to a nice vulvic pink), Metzger’s update teems with louche jet-setters, focusing on manipulative Marguerite (Danièle Gaubert) and the layabout scion besotted with her, Armand (Nino Castelnuovo, Catherine Deneuve‘s love in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Orgies are smartly staged with the grooviest furnishings: inflatable furniture, ersatz jail cells. But the greatest, most audacious touch is Metzger’s use of rack focus, the lens shifting from Marguerite’s on-the-verge-of-coming face to the vase of camellias on her bedside table. The in and out of the camera is timed to her moans; the screen itself seems to be breathing.”
“Those who dismiss Metzger’s films as stylish but low-brow are at best uninformed and at worst snobs,” argues Maitland McDonagh in a survey of Metzger’s work for Film Comment. Score (1973) was “the first step in Metzger’s capitulation to the direction in which erotica was headed. The Liaisons Dangereuses-lite plot sics jaded, bisexual swingers Elvira and Jack, their loins girded with toys, costumes, and experience, on fragile innocents-abroad Betsy and Eddie, wide-eyed newlyweds fairly begging to be debauched. Where others might have viewed the original play as a smuttier spin on Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Metzger saw an updated variation on Noel Coward’s comedies of romantic manners for a more sexually frank and fluid era.”
“What has Metzger done for the American cinema?” asks Steve Macfarlane, introducing his interview with the 85-year-old director for Slant. “Consider the love scenes in movies like Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me or David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, too lurid to survive the censorship of the prior 1960s, but too flowery and poetic to be considered anywhere near exploitation. The trend—triangulating lovemaking, eye candy and mood music into a kind of art-sex stew—had many fathers, but given Metzger’s surprisingly classy softcore riffs on Shaw, Bizet, or Dumas, there’s no questioning he was one of them.”
A couple of weeks ago, we posted Dennis Harvey‘s overview of the oeuvre here in Keyframe. And here’s a delightful supplement: For the Notebook, Adrian Curry‘s gathered several of the best posters for Metzger’s films. “I came across a trove of designs from the 1960s and 70s that all had a distinctive look: often black and white (with a splash of red), spare and serious, they looked more like posters for European art films than for pornography or sexploitation.”
Update: New interviews with Metzger: Steve Dollar (Wall Street Journal) and Steve Gallagher (Filmmaker).
Update, 8/16: For the FSLC, Alexander Hunter reports on Metzger’s Q&A following a screening of Score, which “was released in 1974, just one year before West Coast sexploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer premiered his legendary Supervixens. When asked about Meyer, Metzger stated: ‘Someone said once that Russ Meyer was burlap and I was silk. I thought it was a good line… because I was the one that said it.’ All jokes aside, Metzger credited Meyer to playing a crucial role in the decay of American film censorship in the late ’50s and ’60s. ‘I did see one film [of Meyer’s], and if it weren’t for that one film, there would have been no Audubon Films [Metzger’s film distribution company] and there would have been no me. It was The Immoral Mr. Teas .'”
Update, 8/19: Hillary Weston talks with Metzger for BlackBook.
For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at fandor.com/daily.