Amidst the extended furore surrounding the recent Fifty Shades of Grey film—the unending pages both defending and criticizing its approaches to everything ranging from gender roles to capitalism—very few critics have stepped forward and acknowledged that it can be a difficult task to speak authoritatively when it comes to erotica.
For as much as your approach to the average film may be scuppered by any number of subjective experiences or interpretations, erotic cinema only adds more layers of complexity. The extent to which an erotic film manages to titillate or disgust will—often despite any level of appreciable craftsmanship—be the means by which its audience will judge it, divorced from any wider debates.
Whereas the average film can reliably be sold as the detached, vicarious fantasies of another; erotic cinema must pander to the viewer’s own fantasies. As a form it is inherently more transgressive, often playing to the more immediate and problematic impulses of the human psyche: the unexplainable and sometimes unhealthy fetishes that represent a kind of aesthetic bliss for their target audience. The formal aspects of filmmaking often have little bearing over the viewer’s enjoyment as much as the bare happenings of the content itself.
Perhaps this is why, in the case of a film like Fifty Shades of Grey, film critics have remained so divorced from popular opinion. Formally appreciated as either a film or a cultural object, Fifty Shades of Grey is problematic and clichéd, and yet as a happening—as the aesthetic fantasy of its target audience—it seems to have struck a nerve.
With this in mind I’ve had some trouble trying to approach Radley Metzger’s erotic classic The Image. Metzger is a heavyweight when it comes to erotic cinema and The Image (also known as The Punishment of Anne and The Mistress and the Slave) is one of his rare forays into the niche territory of sadomasochism, bondage, and submission. The result, as far as I’m concerned, is slightly confused.
If there’s a definite praise to be offered it’s that Metzger was at the peak of his career when The Image was released: although the film can hardly be called softcore (there are several extended, graphic scenes of oral sex, for a start), it handles itself with enough restraint that it’s far from exploitative, and is shot and arranged beautifully. Of course the extent to which nice camerawork will make you want to watch a BDSM-centric erotic film remains to be seen.
Based on the Catherine Robbe-Grillet novel of the same name (l’Image), The Image traces the sexploits of Jean, a male writer living in France who stumbles into the lives of a pair of female lovers, Claire and Anne, who are involved in a sadomasochistic game of dominance and submission. With little experience or knowledge of kinkier sex, Jean becomes intrigued by the push and pull of their power imbalances and works his way into their favour to learn more.
Although initially introduced into their sexual games as little but a means of humiliating the submissive Anne, Jean soon becomes increasingly involved in the couple’s games, across a series of titled vignettes that trace the development of their relationship throughout Paris. As you can probably guess, kinkiness ensues.
As a filmmaker Metzger was ambitious in his aims. The Image seems to be aware of the limitations of erotic cinema—of the ways in which it caters to selective individual fantasies—and so stages Jean as an outsider, one whose constant narration attempts to rationalise and contextualise his interest in the world of sadomasochism for an audience who might not be entirely converted to the film’s select perversions. In tone and delivery it almost feels like an attempt to grant the film a dramatic appeal of its own, divorced from the specifics of its kinkier elements. Combined with the Parisian backdrop and a frequent lingering on French architecture, Jean’s narrative often leaves the viewer with the city-searching impression of a Woody Allen film, albeit with a substantially larger quotient of whips and chains.
This isn’t to say that it fully succeeds as a story unto itself. For a film grounded in the subtleties of sadomasochistic response The Image contains some unfortunately heavy-handed religious and high-culture symbolism. A scene in which Anne prays for forgiveness in front of a crucifix before choosing a whip for her punishment stands out like a sore ass when contrasted with the natural demeanour of the film’s sexual play, while a line like ‘you’re about to reap the fruits of your labour’, spoken by Jean at the climax of his first sexual encounter, is cringe-worthy in any context.
On a larger scale still, the film is also severely dated. Like most erotic cinema from the 70’s its approach to sexual practice—though arguably well ahead of its time—doesn’t carry the same weight it used to: the sheer existence of a film like Fifty Shades of Grey ensures that The Image will never quite recover the same sense of wonder and danger that it once possessed.
Metzger’s approach is interesting however, if just for the film’s vivid depiction of Paris, and its layered approach to the relationship between its three main characters. Although it is undoubtedly problematic, the film clearly delineates between vanilla sex and BDSM, staging the former as the indicator of a loving relationship and the latter as a hedonistic thrill, driven by a fear of intimacy, and within these thematic constraints provides a clear narrative arc for each character. Anne is repulsed by overt romance and disgusted by Jean’s motioning towards a traditional relationship, to the point at which she eventually flees for fear of its influence. Claire and Jean however, gradually drift towards each other, closing the film with a vanilla sex scene, one that represents a newfound intimacy against the cold and alien backdrop of BDSM.
By staging Claire and Jean’s growing relationship through their sexual play, The Image cleverly entwines its dramatic arc within the sexual display itself, providing a cohesive narrative rare for erotica. This is arguably the greatest display of Metzger’s talents, and yet for many this arc is also likely to be the film’s biggest downfall.
Although I’ve talked about the inherent trouble in criticizing an erotic film, Jean’s closing encounter with Claire provides the most valid complaint that can be offered against The Image. If for the vast majority of its run Metzger’s film revels in a sadomasochistic world of fantasy, then it corrupts this world in its closing moments, retreating into the safe, cinematic reality of a straight couple having vanilla sex, framed by jubilant music, as if completely unappreciative of the transgressive lens through which the film has previously been enjoyed.
While the camera’s gaze fetishises and glamourises the world of S&M, the core narrative retreats away from its extremities, left to the whims of Jean: a man who has clearly set his sights on a staid romantic affair. It’s a sad ending, in the guise of something uplifting, and one that leaves a sour final note.
Appreciated as a cinematic experiment, The Image is a great film, one that even now in 2015 raises a firm middle finger to genre convention. Funnily enough however, the most glaring criticism is the one that is usually the most difficult to make: that it is flawed as an erotic film.
The Image betrays its own audience in its closing scenes; ending not with a decadent flourish, but with an unsatisfying, vanilla whimper. The fantasy of the film crumbles into something unwelcome, if not boring, and when speaking authoritatively about erotica, that’s perhaps the worst criticism anyone could offer.