America’s number one softcore director Radley Metzger, is best known as the director of such erotic milestones as Little Mother, Score and the French lesbian drama Therese and Isabelle. With all of his features, he was acclaimed for his stylish visuals and some say he was one of the best directors of the “porno chic” era of adult cinema. Just before making the transition into hardcore adult films, he directed what many believe to be his best and most mainstream movie, The Lickerish Quartet.
In a variation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, the film opens on an aristocratic family of three who watch a stag film together. There’s the father (Frank Wolff); his wife (Erika Remberg), and her grown son (Paolo Turco), who all become fascinated with the lead actress in the film they watch. When visiting the town later that night, they just so happen to cross paths with a dead ringer for the film’s leading lady — a mysterious beauty who’s working at a local carnival as a motorcycle stunt driver. They invite the blond bombshell (Silvana Venturelli) to their old family castle with the intention of showing her one of the adult films that they believe she stars in. They insist that their house guest stay overnight and over the course of the next day, she proceeds to sleep with each of one of them, one at a time, resulting in the revelation of a few, dark, family secrets. It’s not exactly a clever nor original plotline, but Metzger makes The Lickerish Quartet something truly worth seeing. Put aside the paper-thin script and the terribly dubbed voice acting (the film was shot in Italy with no sound), The Lickerish Quartetis a stylish, intriguing and at times, titillating work of art.
What distinguishes Metzger’s films from the director’s most notable softcore peers (Russ Meyer and Tinto Brass to name a few), is his provocative, and open-minded attitude toward sex and his fine attention to detail. His movie are, simply put, beautiful to watch, and not because of his gorgeous cast but because of the grand sets, fine art direction, lovely costumes, expert framing, untraditional editing, playful soundtracks and stellar camera work. Metzger’s movies have a certain visual sheen and The Lickerish Quartet, lensed by cinematographer Hans Jura, might just be his best-looking film. The cinematography alone is reason enough to see it and separates The Lickerish Quartet from the thousands of other skin flicks out there.
For a movie that takes place mostly in one location, Metzger couldn’t have chosen a better locale. The Lickerish Quartet makes great use of its setting by staging a number of memorable scenes throughout the European castle situated in the mountains just outside of Rome. He has a great deal of fun with the backdrop, making excellent use of reflections in giant mirrors and marble walls, not to mention shooting long tracking shots through the narrow corridors. At one point, Remberg makes her way through a maze of hallways and staircases until she finds the son on the roof of the old castle, waiting for her. She describes their home as a labyrinth in which one can easily get lost in, but the characters in the film are lost in more ways than one and spend the majority of the pic’s running time looking for answers.
Each sexual encounter between the girl and each of member of the family takes place in a different part of their home and each rendezvous is gorgeously shot. The first sex scene with the father unfolds in a library, with large dictionary pages laid out on the floor in place of tile while the camera zooms in on magnified words such as phallus and fuck (see video above). With the next two sexual encounters, Metzger hammers home the metaphor of how the film projector gives life to each family member’s fantasies, desires, and fears. During the son’s first sexual encounter, Metzger playfully cuts between a close-up of the light of the projector and the sun as the visitor seduces the boy outdoors in the garden by a tree. And during the sex scene with the mother, the house guest seduces the wife in the living room, with the movie projector running along side of them as Metzger alternates between color and black and white to recreate many moments from the film they were watching the night before.
But what makes The Lickerish Quartet truly unique, is how it becomes increasingly self-aware — and makes watching a movie one of its central themes. Not only are we watching the movie; and not only does the family in the movie watch a porno, but The Lickerish Quartet ends with a clever twist. In the last scene, the roles of the actors in the stag film and the family of spectators is reversed. The entire film is structured in a way in which both we the audience and the characters within the film never know what is real and what is fiction. Another constant theme running through the film is how unreliable our memory can be. At the start of the film, the family is convinced that the woman they meet at the carnival is the actress from the stag reel, but at various points in the story, the characters watch the porn film again and see things in a different light. Each family member recalls details from their past differently — and sliced between the film and the film within a film are flashbacks showing their troubled past — each flashback contradicting what they say they remember. The Lickerish Quartet is if anything, an experimental meta-film —a puzzle-within-a-maze-within-a-puzzle of mind games.
As an early cinematic exploration of human sexuality, The Lickerish Quartet was considered shocking back in 1970. But truthfully, the film is tame by today’s standards. The word “lickerish” means “lecherous, lustful or lewd” – but the film views the complexity of human sexuality as something positive, instead of something negative. Of the four characters in the film, the principal lead is a young independent woman, confident in her sexuality, and comfortable with her body. In seducing all three members of the family, she frees them from their personal demons. The father conquers his impotence, the mother comes face to face with her attraction to other women and the son overcomes his disgust with sex due to something he witnessed at a young age. If anything, The Lickerish Quartet views sexuality as a means to heal and allow ourselves to grow. Don’t get me wrong, this is a skin flick and Metzger doesn’t shy away from showing flesh, but what begins as a normal erotic/exploitation flick evolves into something greater.
Metzger was a key player in the sexual revolution of ’60s cinema, and his career contains several milestones in this area. The Lickerish Quartet received critical praise upon its release by many critics, including Andy Warhol and Vincent Canby “as being one of the first films with graphic sex to have Hollywood-like production values”. From here, he went on to direct three of his best films: The Score, Little Mother and The Image, but he still considers this his most personal film — a film drawn from (of all things) Pirandello’s play “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” If you haven’t seen any of his films, this is the perfect place to begin.
- Ricky D