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June 14, 2011

The Image

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L'image/The Punishment of Anne
Radley Metzger - 1975
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

When I first saw The Image, it was released during a brief time in the 70s when it was believed that barriers would be broken, that mainstream cinema could also be highly erotic. It was a time when Columbia Pictures released Emmanuelle in the U.S., and Allied Artists responded by picking up another French film, The Story of O. Radley Metzger had hoped to tap into that market with his film version of the novel by Catherine Robbe-Grillet, written under the pseudonym of Jean De Berg.

I made an unusual choice in watching The Image for the first time in almost thirty-five years. The DVD offers the option of an isolated music and sounds effect track. What I hadn't anticipated is that The Image works quite well without the clutter of dialogue. It should be noted that the film is separated by chapters, a literary device I assume was taken from the source novel. The title cards even have a fancy white script on a black background, resembling the title cards used in silent movies. Even though certain details may be begging explanation, what emerges first and foremost is the dance, as it were, between the three central characters. Relationships are established simply by watching how the three look at each other and respond to each other at the cocktail party where Jean meets Anne and Claire. Even though in watching the film without dialogue, the viewer would not know the names of the characters, one could still guess that the film is told primarily from the point of view of a man observing two women who have some kind of established relationship. Whatever one might think of Metger's films or subject matter, the guy knew how to tell a story almost completely in visual terms.

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What watching the film without dialogue allowed me to do was also be more conscious of some of the use of color. This is especially vivid in the scene that takes place in the Bagatelle Garden in Paris. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Sigmund Freud will get the symbolism when Anne sticks her finger in the middle of a rose, opening the petals wider. There is the repeated use of red with the shots of rows of roses, the clothing worn by the women, and even the same shade of red on a passing boat. That the scene with the roses takes place in an environment where flowers are expressly not to be touched adds a special pique.

To make sure the audience gets the point, Metzger also indulges in several shots of some of the more obviously phallic monuments in Paris. A shot of the Eiffel tower seems visually redundant after several views of Carl Parker's erect penis. That the male character of Jean dominates the film made me wonder how different it would have been had Catherine Breillat adapted Catherine Robbe-Grillet. At the time the film was made, the assumption was that the author of The Image was a man. The little I've read of the novel, with the first chapter available online at Amazon, is a first person narrative from the point of view of a man named Jean De Berg. What I know about Mme. Robbe-Grillet suggests that there were some autobiographical elements.

As in some of Breillat's films, the sex in The Image is unsimulated. Most of the coupling between Jean and Anne involves fellatio, There is also a threesome in a women's clothing store with a female clerk who takes special interest in Anne's lingerie, and the raison d'etre, whips and chains. The erotic quotient is entirely subjective. Although the scenes of Anne's humiliation and torture are explicit, they are are also relatively mild compared to another film that received an art house run at about the same time, Barbet Schroeder's Maitresse. For myself, let me return to the garden. While the scene is as explicit as anything else in The Image, the close-up of the rose held by Claire against Anne's mons veneris is Metzger's most provocative image and a reminder that often what is most highly erotic is not always what is seen, or even experienced, but what is imagined.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 14, 2011 09:57 AM