Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger was enticed by the name, the legacy... and the mod babes.
The swinging Sixties like you've never seen them!
Volume One of The Radley Metzger Collection features three of the erotica director's early works, before he mastered the realm of hardcore pornography. They have artistic merit, but to be blunt: The anticipation I felt at viewing these elusive films was dashed by wretched DVD transfers. After viewing the collection, I don't know whether to be upset by seeing the movies this way or thankful to have seen them at all.
Facts of the Case
The Alley Cats shows us the life of a sexually conflicted socialite named Leslie (Anne Arthur). Though Leslie is stunning and makes herself sexually available, her fiancé Logan (Chaz Hickman) takes his rampant libido into other beds. Distraught and depressed, Leslie finds herself interested in other men—and other women. It is only when the sensually composed Irena (Sabrina Koch) makes her play that Leslie understands her true feelings.
Therese and Isabelle are a couple of unwilling students at a European girl's school. In a refreshing change from the norm for fictional girl's schools, this one is relatively free from corruption, harsh discipline, or predatory headmasters. Nonetheless, Therese (Essy Persson, Cry of the Banshee) is unhappy with the scene. Her one friend is Isabelle (Anna Gaël, Blueblood), a Nordic beauty with a rebellious streak. Against a backdrop of prose and plot based on the novel by Violette Leduc, Therese and Isabelle explore the depths of their femininity together.
Camille 2000 takes us through the tragic romance between the ailing charge of a wealthy count, Marguerite Gautier (Danièle Gaubert, Snow Job), and a businessmen's son, Armand Duval (Nino Castelnuovo, The Five Man Army). Armand arrives in Italy to assume some responsibility in his father's business, but an old school chum introduces him to the social scene first. Armand is immediately taken with Marguerite, even though everyone (including Marguerite herself) warns him off. Armand eventually charms his way into Marguerite's antiseptic plastic and steel boudoir, where he pits his square attitudes against Marguerite's jaded whirlwind of drug addiction and sexual gamesmanship. One of them must relent.
I rarely begin a DVD review with a discussion of the technical quality, but rarely have I seen such a travesty. Volume One of The Radley Metzger Collection is a veritable glossary of audio and visual snafus.
The Radley Metzger Collection's opening salvo is fired by The Alley Cats. When the first light flickered across the screen and Leslie walked across an airport runway, I experienced a sensory overload of visual distractions. The image is misframed, off center with both sides trimmed. As Leslie walked, the planes in the background seemed to be on fire, the result of either intense digital noise reduction or antialiasing errors. The film reels used for the transfer are in decent shape, but little to no cleanup seems to have been done.
The first image confirms the framing issue. You can see that the first letters are missing, which is mirrored by missing final letters in credits on the right side of the screen. But the most distracting visual errors are demonstrated in images two and three.
Image two demonstrates the egregious amounts of edge enhancement used in the transfer. It looked as though each actor were coated in quicksilver halos that shimmered with every movement. I selected the frame above because you can clearly see the silver line around the central figure's arm and elbow. The effect is much worse in full motion.
Finally, image three shows the bountiful array of colors that are present in this "black-and-white" film. The frequent intrusion of actual rainbows during the film was extremely annoying. See the detailed view, taken from the grille of the car, for an example.
Next up is Therese and Isabelle, which shows a slight improvement. The mind-boggling amounts of edge enhancement have been reduced, although digital noise reduction still causes background objects and fine details to oscillate like psychedelic light shows. The main problem with this transfer (as seen in image five) is that it lacks detail; the entire film is soft and bleary, so that we can't make fine distinctions among objects. Poor contrast doesn't help much in this regard.
There is also a fine black line that runs down the middle of the frame throughout much of the film, which you can see in image six:
It isn't a showstopper, but taken with the rest it becomes another annoyance. A white blob of light dances at the bottom edge of the screen. Finally, there are periodic stints of visual dropouts where the entire screen goes black (well, black with specks, anyway), as seen in image seven.
In some ways, Camille 2000 is in worse shape than Therese and Isabelle. In terms of dust and scratches, this latter film is the worst offender. However, the general sharpness and relative freedom from edge enhancement go a long way toward improving the overall visual impression. The print has yellowed, which happens to many films of that vintage, but the clever color compositions remain.
The audio shows remarkable parallels with the video. The Alley Cats is well-nigh unlistenable. The mix is so hot that it sounds like every word is threatening to bloom into bursts of static—and many do just that. A harsh background hiss looms over everything. Music is warbling, tremulous, and tinny. Periodic dropouts, static bursts, pops, and clicks are mere changes of pace. Not only does the soundtrack fail to accentuate the mood of the film, it often fails to clearly deliver words. I couldn't decide which was worse, the radioactive halos around the people on the screen or the background hiss that threatened to wound my ears with random outbursts of sibilance. This is especially disappointing because the jazzy score might have been fun to really listen to.
Therese and Isabelle has an incrementally quieter background hiss, though it isn't any less noticeable. It too had dropouts, hisses, pops, and other sonic distortions. By the time I finally got around to listening to Camille 2000, I was jumpy. Fortunately, although the pops and dropouts are more prominent, the general background hiss and sonic blooming into white noise are kept in check.
Few, if any, soundtracks have actually caused me to fear for the safety of my equipment. Yet I found myself constantly turning down the volume knob to prevent any issues, however unlikely the reality of speaker damage may be. One thing is for certain: I'm never listening to The Alley Cats by headphones again. My ears are still cringing from that outburst.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The awful technical quality mars a collection of movies that approaches moments of brilliance. Though I won't hasten to mention Metzger alongside Truffaut or Coppola, these films are close observations of character that raise them above the norm for erotic films.
The best of the lot is Therese and Isabelle. Because of its intricate flashback structure, careful use of light and shadow, moving score, and other classic touches, Therese and Isabelle breaks into the rarefied art film category. The tale is unhurried, though the erotic subtext is established early. We ache as the tension builds between the two lovers.
Metzger's use of lighting and suspense invites comparison to Hitchcock, or even suggests a nod to film noir. Yet these techniques are used to heighten the lovely pair's sense of isolation and their urgency to be with each other. As the film moves forward, we marvel at Metzger's cleverness with time and space, yet we also find ourselves drawn into an erotically charged mystery. Though some may find the film slow, those who appreciate deliberate pacing are likely to find the film enthralling. The erotic scenes have voice-overs of Violette Leduc's lesbian erotic writings, with references to pearls, sweet meats, and delicate mysteries. This causes the scenes to feel dated, but it also lends an unmistakably naughty, if highbrow, sense of poetry to the girl-on-girl action. By the way, this is also the most explicit of the three films, with unhurried shots of nudity and realistic (though artistic) compositions.
Camille 2000 would have you believe it is more daring than Therese and Isabelle, but its bluster is too easy to see through. The drug use, brazenly nude hippies, dungeon orgies, and other mod trappings aren't as risqué as they might have been in 1969. Time has stripped away the shock value and left us with a slightly pretentious, overly artsy tragedy. Camille (I mean, Marguerite) lives in an impossibly sterile chamber of plastic, glass, and steel. Her furniture is formed of inflatable see-through plastic, while her bed looks like a solid block of lucite. When she makes love, we see her quadrupled reflection in four warped panes of steel. When she orgasms, we watch a vase of white roses drift rhythmically in and out of focus. Armand and Marguerite writhe together under a thick glass tabletop, becoming a distorted octopus of arms and legs. It is all supposed to be erotic, and artistic, while making a wry statement about organic elements juxtaposed against the unsuitably antiseptic. Neither the eroticism nor the artistry completely hit the mark, and the statement is a bit muffled.
This isn't to say that Camille 2000 doesn't have merit. A showdown at the Baccarat table (complete with tuxedoes) captures the James Bond vibe better than recent Bond films. Danièle Gaubert is a winning actress, displaying both verve and vulnerability along with her exquisite natural assets. Even when Camille 2000 is boring us, it retains a hip tone and shows sly insights into the foibles of the upper crust. It is a likable relic of the swinging sixties. It might have been more, but this version seems to have been either cut for content or sloppily edited. One of the quoted reviews says "pretty much the whole Kama Sutra!" Either they were watching a different film or they bought the abridged Kama Sutra.
Even more funky than Camille 2000, but unfortunately less satisfying, is The Alley Cats. Although I admit the abysmal video and audio quality may have soured me on the film, it doesn't feel as daring or as free as Metzger's later films. The plot is staid, with a particularly dissatisfying conclusion. The men are obtuse cads while the women are…well, alley cats. I can say with conviction that Metzger's unknown leading ladies, Anne Arthur and Sabrina Koch, are enchanting. They lend freshness and sensuality to every scene, particularly the ones where they are biting their own fingers while staring into the camera with come-hither eyes. The rest of the film is overacted and underplotted.
The real Achilles heel is the lack of nudity, which truly hurts this film. None of these Metzger films stray into distasteful raunchiness, but the nudity in the other two films lends a voyeuristic thrill that disproportionately increases the erotic effect. The Alley Cats has a handful of scenes that seem to mount toward an illicit disrobing, but the camera jerks away with misplaced modesty. The deleted scenes reveal part of the answer in three nude scenes that fit remarkably well as tail ends of the unnaturally truncated scenes.
Each of these movies is granted a decent amount of extras. Nathanial Thompson's film notes range from overly complimentary to just right. The photo galleries, trailers, and deleted scenes help flesh out the context of the films.
Taken together as an excerpt of Metzger's early work, these films show a commendable sense of experimentation, a fondness for social discourse, and an underdeveloped (yet occasionally charged) sense of the erotic. Though all three films try to, only Therese and Isabelle engaged the "erotica" region of my mind. The other two films were flirty and fun—when they weren't a drag, that is. There's no doubt that Metzger is a competent director, but this set doesn't help that revelation along. If you consider the "alternate" nude scenes from The Alley Cats to be cut content, as I do, that makes two of the three films that have been edited for content. Along with the misframing, uncleaned film stock, eye-searing edge enhancement, color artifacts in the black-and-white films, not to mention sound quality that makes your eardrums nervous…well, The Radley Metzger Collection (Volume 1) is something of a disappointment.
The verdict is clear in this case. The court has issued a warrant for the arrest of First Run Features' telecine equipment.
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Scales of Justice, The Alley Cats
Perp Profile, The Alley Cats
Studio: First Run Features
Distinguishing Marks, The Alley Cats
• Alternate Nude Scenes
Scales of Justice, Therese And Isabelle
Perp Profile, Therese And Isabelle
Studio: First Run Features
Distinguishing Marks, Therese And Isabelle
• Stills Gallery
Scales of Justice, Camille 2000
Perp Profile, Camille 2000
Studio: First Run Features
Distinguishing Marks, Camille 2000
• Deleted Scenes
Review content copyright © 2005 Rob Lineberger; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.