The line between serious art-house cinema and erotica has often been a little blurred, especially when it came to American companies that, in the 1960s and early 1970s, sought out European imports with a “classy” approach to skin and sexuality, from Brigitte Bardot romps to freewheeling explorations of the sexual revolution in films like I, A Woman and I Am Curious (Yellow). “It’s not pornography, it’s art,” was the implicit argument, even if it was the sex that the exhibitors marketed.
Radley Metzger knew the form well. Before making his success as a director, he imported sexy European releases through his company Audubon and would dub, recut and sometimes even add footage to t hem. When he embarked on directing his own erotic films, his model remained the continental class of European films, with its visual elegance, social sophistication and artful photography, rather than the exploitive energy of American nudies and drive-in exploitations. And he chose to shoot his films in Europe, where he could secure lavish locations for his productions at a relative bargain and cast experienced, attractive performers who weren’t shy about undressing for the camera or engaging in (tastefully) erotic scenes.
The Lickerish Quartet (1970) was the first of Metzger’s films branded with the X-rating (even though it features no explicit or hardcore footage) because of its nudity and sexuality. It’s also his most conceptually ambitious and intellectually challenging film and, by his own admission, his most personal. It signals its ambitions from the opening quote from Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” (“All this present reality of yours is fated to seem mere illusion tomorrow”) and then plunges us into the games of a family of jaded aristocrats. Metzger cuts Pirandello’s cast down to four: the sarcastic man of villa (Frank Wolff), his wife (Erika Remberg), and her son (Paolo Turco), a mannered intellectual constantly mocked by his step-father. (The fourth arrives later.) They have no names, fitting for a film where identity becomes so fluid.