Immaculate, Imaginative: The Image

1975, USA. Directed by Radley Metzger. Starring Mary Mendum, Carl Parker and Marilyn Roberts. Novella published 1956, France, by Jean de Berg.

The 1970’s. In that creative gap between cheap and brief “stag films” forced underground by strict obscenity laws and the oncoming aesthetically cheapening effects of videotape, many a beauteous and beatific porn film blossomed. Certainly not all of the supposed classics of that era hold up well—have you actually tried to make it through Debbie Does Dallas, lately? And the non-consensual problematics in the production of Deep Throat mean that we have certain decisions to make regarding our viewing of it.

But the good ones—the films by talented and ambitious directors who suddenly had real budgets, and actual stories, and some semblance of characterization in mind (not to mention actresses with natural breasts)—oh my, that decade does deserve to be called porn’s Golden Age. Porn is as old as cave paintings, but there was a certain newness to these films, a freedom of exploration that in our jaded post-Moral Majority/post-Internet era all looks wonderfully ballsy, while also somehow innocent.

The sub-genre of BDSM films is no exception—in fact, the most memorable films from that brief time are still what I would consider to be the best ever.

Is there a single best BDSM film of all time? Erotica is so incredibly subjective, especially kinky erotica—my “too mild” is quite likely your “too harsh,” or vice-versa. There is, at least, a basic consensus of the good ones, though settling on one “Best” is well-nigh impossible.

Secretary. Undoubtedly one of the best, and I’ll be reviewing it soon. Some feel that it pathologizes BDSM, and this debate is worth thinking about and writing about. One thing that Secretary is not, is porn. Should BDSM porn films be considered? Why the hell not? We’re just having fun here. Often, though, that line is blurred, especially in film. Which is fine with me.

One thing that serious, kinky people can all agree upon—I hope—is that one series of films should not be considered as the best, a certain trilogy based on a certain successful and problematic trilogy of books—with all the books’ kinkiness washed out of them. The books are another discussion, but the films depict “kink” thusly: man ties woman’s wrists to bed; man, at most, lightly flicks woman with a flogger; man unties woman for straight, cinematic (and missionary) sex. Next!

One film that must be at least considered for the honor, in my perhaps not so humble opinion, is Radley Metzger’s 1975 film The Image. When I first saw it on DVD several years ago, I was convinced we had our winner, hands down. Watching it anew, after only the highlights rolling around in my head for several years now (which is saying something), I have a few reservations and qualifications. But hey, I’m only taking nominations here, and The Image most definitely deserves that much.

*

It’s too bad that the one thing that, for me, possibly disqualifies this movie as unassailable, favorite, and Classic is a mere technical problem but it is in fact a doozy, and so I must mention it early: sound. Specifically, voices—which are, obviously, rather important to a film that is not only about sex but is, more importantly, about the psychology of submission and domination.

When I first saw this movie, not having read about its production, I thought the problem of the characters’ voices was simply one of overdubbing into English—after all, one of my other favorites is The Education of the Baroness, which is dubbed with, sadly, no option for the original French with subtitles. The voices, in The Image, are also awkward and not quite fitting the visuals—all of the street scenes (street scenes! In a porno!) were filmed in Paris; obviously this was a French film.

But I began to notice something on repeated viewing (of the hotter scenes at least): the actors were originally speaking English. I mean, it’s not that hard to lip-read porn, even idea-heavy porn. The actors were speaking English, but their dialogue was still dubbed over. Were there problems in recording? Did the filmmakers decide their voices weren’t all that great after the fact? I’ve found nothing about this, but man, is it annoying.

Carl Parker as Jean; the late Peter Thomas as Jean’s voice.

To make things worse, for the overdubbing of Jean, the main male lead (played by Carl Parker), Metzger used the late, legendary voiceover artist Peter Thomas. If you are not familiar with his name, you have probably heard his voice. He is most known for narrating the long-running crime documentary series Forensic Files and also PBS’s Nova back in the day; his voice is all over TV reruns. You’ve heard him. While Thomas was eminently qualified for reading dialogue clearly, the problem is that his voice was most definitely not…sexy. Clear and concise? Yes. Anything approaching sexy? No. Just…no.

Worse yet, The Image, based on the novella L’Image by Jean de Berg, relies heavily on voice-over narration. Heavily. In most films, so much voiceover is a weakness, but by Jean/Jeanne de Berg standards, it’s fine (I’ll explain later)—but we end up hearing a lot of Peter Thomas’s voice. The two female leads are overdubbed as well, often over-emotionally, hyper-excitedly. Oh but goddamn, this could have been a better film with the original voices, however they might have sounded. Because, outside of this very noticeable flaw, it is not only a remarkably hot movie, if you like your BDSM on the harsh (but consensual) side, but a psychologically complex one as well.

*

Above all, The Image tells a good story, and one that is very thought-provoking, because it is based on a serious work of erotic literature. Jean de Berg is the male pseudonym of Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the famous French dominatrix also known for Ceremonies des Femmes (Women’s Rites), which was written under the female nom de plume Jeanne de Berg. Robbe-Grillet, now in her 90s, is a fascinating woman who definitely walks the walk, sadomasochism-wise. She is known for her arranged performances of submissive men and women, tableaux vivantes-style, in which she does quite frankly horrible things to them for small, privately invited audiences. She’s rough, and so is her fiction. Women’s Rites is basically just a semi-random collection of accounts of these performances, with much reflection on what they mean to both her and her willing victims.

L’Image is more story-structured, but no less harsh. While it is not as well-known as Pauline Réage’s Story of O, which came out the same year (1956), audiences were surprised that both works were written by women—the cruel situations described, after all, must surely be male fantasies? But as we all know by now, no. Women think up some dark shit, too.

In L’Image’s case, this confusion is complicated by the novella’s structure—it is told not by the female submissive nor her female Top, but by Jean, the male drawn into this vortex that would soon become a triangle. It’s his perspective, his desire, that we get to know most intimately.

…Though not too intimately. Berg, writing as either gender, was known for her emotional distance in her writing. That is why there is so much voiceover in the movie, so, so much Peter Thomas. Her approach was very French-intellectual—she was married to the intellectual writer/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, after all—lots of thinking about what is going on, calm analysis and summarizing, more than getting to know the character through a truly close point-of-view. The novella’s reliance on the technique means that the film requires some of it to fill in backstory, but it was also an aesthetic choice by Metzger to follow it so closely. By today’s standards, it’s emotionally distant—but then Berg was distant, especially in the scenarios of Women’s Rites. This can arguably be seen as a flaw in such an intense situation between only three participants, or, as one of the film’s themes is the objectification of the submissive Anne (played by Mary Mendum), it can be seen as an advantage, an enhancement of the approach—because objectification figures largely, in this movie.

God, does it. But while Robbe-Grillet is often (rightly) described as intellectual or cold, this does not mean she is unemotional. In fact, she finds her cruel scenes deeply meaningful and emotional, but that emotion is kept inside—treasured, savored, nurtured. She embodies the ideal female Top that is immortalized by Masoch in Venus in Furs: cold, and cruel. But not dead inside. Oh, no. Not at all.

*

The Image follows the novella very closely in its story; a good thing. It veers off only briefly a couple of times for the sole purpose of inserting (no pun intended) several porny-porn scenes, non-simulated oral sex performed by Anne on Jean, and once on another woman. In the one scene in which the blowjob was originally depicted in the book, this works well—Anne was ordered to suck Carl’s cock while her mistress Claire whips her pretty hard, pretty damn hard. It is delectable. However, in a later scene, it’s simply gratuitous. (I can’t believe I’m saying that about a sex scene in an erotic film, but I am.) In the novella, Anne’s fresh markings are displayed to a shop girl in a dressing room in a lingerie store; they exit the store and leave the salesgirl bewildered and wondering. In the film, this develops into a full waka-chicka waka-chika porn scene with Anne orally servicing the attendant while that woman in turn sucks Jean. It’s kinda silly and the original idea is actually stronger, but hey, double-oral scene, I guess.

*

Because the stories progress so similarly, consider this summary as covering both:

Jean, vanilla but swinger, is attending a very French pseudo-intellectual cocktail party in Paris when he spies first a lovely, young, innocent-looking blonde, and then his former lover Claire, played by Marilyn Roberts. He begins a conversation with Claire, and, as it turns out, she knows the blonde as well—quite well, in fact.

We never really get the details of Jean and Claire’s past relationship, in the film nor the book, except that it wasn’t especially deep, as Jean found—and still finds—Claire to be emotionally distant and aloof, though quite beautiful. Because Claire spends more time than he does staring at the young blonde, Jean asks Claire who she is.

Her name is Anne. “Just a young model,” she says. “She belongs to me.”

Jean is confused. They discuss her attractiveness, and Claire keeps dropping these odd hints, such as that she does not allow Anne to wear underwear. Claire speaks of Anne as though she were an object, her possession, never discussing her outside of certain behaviors. She finally tells him, “You can touch her if you want to. You’ll see; it’s very pleasant.” Jean is, to say the least, intrigued. They decide to go visit a public flower garden in a few days.

La vie en rose.

It’s here when we, and Jean, see that Claire and Anne’s relationship is not a friendship, nor is it among equals: Claire orders Anne to pick a rose, clearly against the park’s rules. Anne obeys. In a private spot, Claire orders Anne to lift her skirt, and, sans underwear, Claire places the thorny stem into Anne’s garter belt, drawing blood, the blossom placed against her pubic hair. It is a lovely image. Claire then orders her to squat and urinate into the dirt, in front of Jean. (Urine is one of Robbe-Grillet’s kinks that I just do not find appealing, but it hasn’t stopped me from loving her work.) For the next few days, Claire and Anne are, understandably, the primary thing on Jean’s mind.

He runs into Anne, alone, at a bookstall on a Paris street. But she is not at all the submissive creature from the park. She’s frankly rude to him, not just demurring from his greetings but outright cold once away from Claire.

This is interesting, in both the book and the film. I’ll admit that the Anne I had in mind from the book is different from the Anne played by Mary Mendum, though believe me, I’ve had NO problem with Mendum’s portrayal. Far from it. In fact, it’s damn good casting. Mendum was fresh off of the Broadway production of Hair and was also Metzger’s girlfriend at the time. (She went on to make only a few more adult films and then disappeared into reclusive obscurity; I can’t help but wonder if she regretted making this film.) She is blonde, beautiful, and remarkably innocent looking; wide-eyed. Wonderful body. And, at times when we’d assume otherwise, eager. But from the book, I had pictured someone more…meek, shy. Darker, plainer hair. More French. Yet Mendum actually captures the personality aspects of her character extremely well; she’s just more…American? than I expected.

The awesome Mary Mendum (Rebecca Brooke) as Anne.

The fact that she captures Anne’s complexity is one of the reasons this film works—this is no cheap porn flick. Anne has motivations of her own for not just tolerating but wanting the degradations imposed on her; she is free to leave at any time. Yet she doesn’t…yet, at least. And her sudden show of independence at the bookseller? We never really get to know Anne’s motivations, viewing or reading from Jean’s point of view. We end up learning, in fact, far more about Claire’s. We only get these small hints of what Anne will put up with, what she wants, and that is one of the fascinating parts of this work—most erotica, after all, is from the submissive’s point of view. But Robbe-Grillet has always been a definite Top in real life, and her work is one of the few examples where this point of view works so well—because we’re left with the mysteries of Anne’s desires.

*

An aside:

There is a mistaken assumption, by many, about objectification in eroticism (as opposed to real-life objectification in the office, board room, on the street). The assumption is that objectification is inherently unemotional, or at least emotionally distant. This misapprehension is understandable, because creating distance is exactly what objectification does. It is an imposed coldness. But if you think that either the imposer or the imposee of this enforced distance is feeling nothing, you do not understand the kink, if I may say so.

It can be intensely emotional, but that emotion has been shifted, replaced, but not eliminated. For those aroused by turning another into a mere erotic object, or those being temporarily turned into one, there is a deep thrill—because, really, there has to be some level of objectification for desire to exist. We are temporarily agreeing to want each other’s bodies. I recently read a summary of Kant’s views on desire and objectification, which I (and many others) had to consider as ridiculous. To make a long argument short, Kant found sexual desire to be inherently immoral, because it relies on objectification, which he defined as dehumanizing. While an exchange of, say, cash for labor, or hiring a singer to use her voice is not objectifying because you’re hiring them for their talents, the desire for a body reduces them to that body, just meat, flesh, like an animal. Too much thinking like that and we’re not only distracted from our quest for logical morals, we’re also soon on our way to marching people off to the gas chambers. This, by the way, is largely why Kant died a virgin.

Talk about “correctness” trumping hotness. Diluted versions of this argument still go on in academia—how can one desire a lover without objectifying her (or him), because wanting a body is demeaning to their personhood?

Practitioners of BDSM, for the most part, thankfully have no such qualms. We beat each other’s flesh with whips, for heaven’s sake. At the proper times, we want to be treated like mere meat, put on display, or enjoy that display of consenting others. Kant simply did not understand that the whole point of non-reproductive sex is that desire can be so damn, wonderfully illogical.

Yet even among kinksters, some find the supposed detachment of objectification unsexy. They want that “sizzle” that comes from a more intimate set-up. Hey, different strokes; I’m fine with that. But understand that the imposed distance of backing up and viewing (or being) the body—as art, as a mere thing to use, to enjoy, vs. the BDSM-Romance image of, say, the growling Dom with his weight pressed against his sub, whispering gentle threats into her ear—has its own emotional intensity to aficionados. A deep, illogical, motherfucking thrill. The attention and focus upon that individual is still there—it’s just not as obvious. You get it or you don’t. I’m not dissing those who aren’t into this particular sub-kink; I’m just dissing those who diss it.

*

Anne’s show of defiance at the bookseller’s stall has its costs. Claire invites Jean over to see some photos she’d mentioned at the party. Anne was, as Claire had said, a “model.” The black and white prints show Anne naked and bound, blindfolded, strung up, tied down. Screaming, with whip marks across her skin. They are, as with the carefully placed rose and the title of this entire work, a lovely image.

In what seems a minor detail but is not—this is not so much a spoiler alert so much as an urging to pay attention—the final photograph, of a nude lower torso, legs slightly spread, goods on full display, is clearly of a different woman. Different hands, for one thing. Jean asks Claire if it is Anne, to which she replies, “Who else could it be?” Major detail, folks, because this is psychologically a fairly complex film.

The movie then hits its stride, as well as its submissive character: Anne is in the house, unbeknownst to Jean. Claire calls for her, then tells her she understands that she was rude to Jean the other day. She will have to be punished. In one of the most delightful scenes in erotic filmmaking, Anne is ordered to strip in the ornate parlor, kneel and display herself, and then go fetch the whip of her choice. Anne runs to the basement and carefully selects a whip, replaces, it, chooses another. There is the dread of what’s coming, mixed with the glee of anticipation on her face. (She might have just slightly overacted, here, or not; I leave that up to you. It’s really pretty cool.) She’s whipped there while kneeling, her face defiant, thrilled, and in pain, all at once. She’s sent back for some chains.

When she returns it’s become oddly dark out, but she is slapped down hard and ordered to crawl to Jean, now barefoot. She orally services his toes, then moves up. She is chained to the chair kneeling in from of him, and to a soundtrack reminiscent of early Pink Floyd takes more whipping, then is ordered to suck Jean’s newly exposed cock, and then, delightfully, Claire resumes the whipping as Jean climaxes. The whole sequence has stuck in my brain for years now, anyway.

We now have a triangle, no longer just two lovers and an observer, yet things are still unbalanced. Claire tells Jean that he may use Anne in any way that he pleases, and he uses her for oral sex in various locations around Paris—he’s in charge of her, but only by Claire’s graces. It is she who has ordered Anne to obey. She’s a gift, a loan.

The intensity rises. Claire loves to hear about their encounters, and they all meet in public places, where both Tops abuse Anne in hidden little games—inserting food items into her vagina in a restaurant, finger-fucking her while Anne speaks to the waiter, on and on. As I mentioned, the one gratuitous porny-porn scene involves underwear shopping. Not only does the sexual content continue to increase, the tension does as well.

Jean watches Claire bathe Anne for what is going to be a big evening. She holds her head beneath the water until she almost drowns; forces her to pee in the tub (I know. Not my kink either). Claire stares seductively at Jean the entire time she toys with Anne, as though daring him.

In many ways, this is the actual theme of this film, and book: what’s up with Claire? Jean’s motivations are clear—he’s a vanilla horndog who’s seen the advantages of having a submissive female at his disposal. It’s fun. I would love to know more about Anne’s inner life; we learn that there is really much to her: she’s into this. She agreed to this relationship with Claire long before Jean came along (and was she loaned to others, before him? Did she have other Tops?), and knows what she wants, even when, as we’ll soon witness, she is literally screaming in pain.

But Claire—never approachable even in their past; emotionally distant, demanding and purely analytical. Jean tells us she’s an even tougher nut to crack now. Yet the smoldering looks she gives Jean while tormenting and manipulating Anne, from that first punishment to the last scene, speaks volumes. And that photo, not of Anne? She is, apparently, only able to express herself indirectly, through the medium of a totally pliable third person, or at least some intermediary.

Chapter 9, the Gothic Chamber. (The film’s chapters are labelled exactly as the book’s.) Anne, blindfolded, is ordered to kneel on the little stage in Claire’s dungeon and play with herself, while Claire picks up a thin steel serving pick from the hors d’oeuvres tray and heats it over a candle. This film, it should be said, is not some gentle little slap and tickle love story.

Anne’s wrists are fastened into old-school steel shackles and her arms raised high above her head in a complex mess of chandelier and chains. Her body, I’ll repeat, is absolutely delightful, and is displayed so well in this fashion. She is in for it.

Gagged with a straight bit gag, she is helpless to do much but scream—and scream she does—as Claire presses the hot, sharp iron against her flesh: first on her stomach, then into that seam where her breast meets ribcage. This is a prolonged, detailed scene, and her screaming—devolving into incoherent gurgles—might bother some people. It bothered me—yet I kept watching. Claire holds her tight, around the waist, as she tortures her. The view is absolutely sublime, if you’re into this kind of thing. Remember: Anne signed up for this.

Claire signals, merely nods, to the whips hanging on the wall, and Jean takes the cue. Another prolonged scene, as Jean learns to apply the whip to Anne’s naked torso. More screaming—but while I have criticized the vocal overdubs in the dialogue scenes of this film, wow, these screams are intense, whether they are actually Mendum’s voice or not. It is horrible and thrilling.

I’m veering into spoiler territory here, but I promise not to give away the ending. At some point, Anne can take no more. One enthused online review I read stated: “Mendum’s fawn-like beauty and willowy figure heighten both Anne’s torment and our desire to see how much she can take (a lot, it turns out).” This is wonderfully accurate.

But Jean next does something he has never done, at least with Anne: having expended all the possibilities of erotic torment, he lays Anne down, and takes her, fucks her on the floor of the stage. She does not say “no,” but clearly does not enjoy it. She’s accepted every oral penetration, every whipping and humiliation—but this was a line he was apparently not to cross, even though it was never stated. Claire had, in fact, given him permission to do just this.

But Anne had never given such permission, even though she’d never before refused Claire’s instructions. I’m not defending what is quite probably a rape. In fact, even though Anne did not resist or deny (even though she certainly looked like she wanted to), what happens next reinforces the need for clear consent in the real BDSM world: Anne leaves. She turns off all the bright spotlights that had been aimed at her, and says, simply, “I’m leaving.”

In the novella, she says nothing. She is exhausted, lying on her side, and Jean simply sidles up alongside her and, in the book’s term, “ravages” her, end of chapter. But the film, in what I’d call a superior move rather than a cop-out to mores, makes it more clear: Anne has agency; Anne has had enough. Whether she could have stopped the rape or not—I think she could have? This is a tough one—she did not.

This is actually a deep and serious discussion, in our times, sixty years since the writing of the book, forty since the film was made. I read accounts of predators in local kink scenes all the time; subs place themselves into possible abuse in every scene with a new partner. They often call out the abusers, as they should; some defend them, definitions of consent are debated, Twitter arguments ensue. I nearly always believe the woman (or man)—the victim—in all cases of abuse. This topic is dominating our current era, what with a predator (supposedly) leading our country.

But…while The Image is wonderful because it delves pretty realistically with issues of domination and submission, desires for control and being controlled and actual control far better than so many other works of erotic fiction, both filmed and on the page—it is still fiction. And one of my beliefs and missions here on my site is to defend what is undefendable in real life, but has to be allowed in fiction—because while it is allowable and even necessary to criticize works we don’t like, to say that they shouldn’t exist at all is to intrude not just on our right to read and watch such work, but to intrude upon our own fantasies. And dictating what others can fantasize is a form of control I refuse to submit to, as is the banning of any books or art forms. I love Maleficarum, for crying out loud—talk about non-consensual—but I know the difference between the delightful horrors imposed on actresses and the real-life horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.

One of the (many) wonderful things about The Image is its feasibility as a real situation—and that is why Jean’s final act in the dungeon is so disturbing. Did Berg intend it to be so? Or did she intend it to titillate? Or both? As a writer, she is somewhat matter-of-fact, distant; as a person she is well known as one harsh Top, a true Sadist. In any case, my advice is if you’re up for it, let it disturb you, let it arouse you—or neither. It’s not my place to dictate. That’s the joy of often harsh sexual fiction: it can do both; I’m learning to just go with the flow. It’s fiction.

*

The Gothic Chamber might be the psycho-sexual climax of the film, but it is not the end, nor, in fact, the emotional climax. There is one more chapter. I tend to give away more than I should in these reviews, but it’s very difficult to analyze a narrative artwork, rather than just write a review to entice the potential viewer, without discussing plot points.

Marilyn Roberts as the cruel, smoldering and enigmatic Claire.

I will say that we finally learn more about what motivates Claire, what’s been going through her head. She is, even more than Anne, the mystery of this film. Sure, we follow Anne around the screen with our eyes; she’s the one naked and obeying and being whipped, and yes, I want to know so much more about her psychology. Jean? He’s easy—he’s a guy, and his thoughts are told to us via Peter Thomas’s factual and caring 1950’s-fatherlike explanations. But Claire—how did she pick up such a sub? Why is she so generous with her as an object, a gift to her old acquaintance, yet so cruel to her little pet?

All this clearly needs resolved. It is. Nicely, I would say, because many things are left not so clearly resolved.

I’ll just say that Claire, so precise and decisive in most aspects of her life, has her definite hang-ups, but hang-ups they remain—they are not blown up into a big pathology to explain away her cruelty and need for some kind of “cure” for her tendencies, as so many other movies would do.

Nor, thankfully, are we given the need for some “cure” for Anne and Jean. This story treats all of its characters as adults (for the most part), and depicts the desire for erotic cruelty as a choice, not as a mental disease or flaw or some void, or evidence of childhood abuse. It’s fun. For Tops, for bottoms—until it’s not, for this particular bottom, anyway. But even then, Anne has agency. She leaves when it’s no longer fun. While it could be argued she could or should have called the cops, she did not. She just left.

If things didn’t go wrong, it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? That’s the nature of fiction, good fiction at least, including good erotic fiction.

And this film is damn good erotic fiction.

*

The Image is available on DVD and Blu-Ray here, on Amazon; the novella L’Image is out of print in English translation, then in print, then out of print. Search it out; it’s around in both English and the original French.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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