‘The Lickerish Quartet’ (1970): Nothing dates like erotica

Surely Andy Warhol had to have been kidding.

Radley Metzger’s softcore opuses have been enjoying a burbling cult reputation for a few years now; Metzger (b. 1929) was a film distributor and editor in New York who started earning some bucks in the mid ‘60s by cannily editing European flicks to play up their “arty” (i.e., titillating) elements.

Seizing the moment, and using European production money, he started directing his own risqué features, movies whose helpings of T&A were offset by relatively lavish sets, glamorous European locales and technically competent filmmaking — all of which set them far above whatever quickie nudie flicks might have been playing the seedier theatres in Times Square at the time.

Metzger’s films are perfect time capsules of flamboyant late ‘60s/early ‘70s fashions and production design, which is a big part of whatever kitschy appeal the movies have 40 years later. There’s no doubt that they stand as historical curiosities, and are sporadically amusing in a found-camp kind of way. But anyone who pretends these are good movies is kidding himself.

Cowritten by Metzger and Michael DeForrest, The Lickerish Quartet is like Pasolini’s Teorema remade for Playboy subscribers: In the 1968 Pasolini movie, the four members of an upper-bourgeois family each fall for a mysterious, charismatic stranger (Terence Stamp) of possibly divine origins. For each family member, the experience proves devastating; their lives are shattered afterward. In Metzger’s version of the scenario, the only thing divine about the stranger is actress Silvana Venturelli’s looks.

In a castle somewhere in the gorgeous Italian countryside, a jaded middle-aged couple (Frank Wolff as the Man, Erika Remberg as the Wife) and her teenage Son (Paolo Turco) each have an ecstatic sexual encounter with a mystery woman known only as the Girl (Venturelli), who, evincing little personality of her own, serves as a compliant fantasy for each character.

Through their experience with the Girl, each family member works through some psychosexual hangup, to judge from the clutter of free-associative flashbacks and flash-forwards strewn throughout the narrative. In a bit of canny plotting, the mutual seduction between the Girl and the Wife comes last — canny, because this no doubt ensured that every guy who bought a ticket back in 1970 stayed until the end.

The original poster from 1970. Maybe your parents went to see this.

Metzger and DeForrest were hardly alone at the time in asserting, “If it feels good, do it.” Another way of looking at it, though, is that this film’s daring thesis is that sleeping with a beautiful blonde leaves you feeling great about yourself. Who ever would’ve guessed that two straight guys would come to such a conclusion?

A more serious problem with the movie is that given the basic scenario — mysterious hottie enters the lives of a family, kinky hijinks ensue — even the most middling Broadway playwright or hack screenwriter could’ve cooked up a more entertaining script, or at least had some fun with the premise. Metzger is too busy beating the audience over the head with his dull-witted notions of sophistication.

In this aesthetic, a story based around sex rises to “classy” erotica if the sex is surrounded by the trappings of luxury; the lifestyle-spread décor and travel-mag settings legitimize the T&A. Metzger’s vaunted good taste is its own kind of dreary bad taste. The movies need to bare plenty of nubile young flesh to create an atmosphere of titillation, but God forbid a scruffy hippie girl with thoughts of her own should show up in this liquor-ad idea of the good life. This is a middle-aged swinger’s concept of what the revolution should be like.

Reading online reviews for the 2011 Blu-Ray of The Lickerish Quartet, I’m struck by how many of them assume that the film’s relative sexual progressiveness (for 1970) guarantees that the movie is artistically avant-garde as well, as if even today credulous critics are taking at face value whatever absurd claims were made in the film’s press kit back in October 1970. It isn’t the T&A in The Lickerish Quartet that’s inane, it’s the arty, pseudointellectual nonsense surrounding it.

The reexamination of Metzger’s work in recent years strikes me as less the result of some intrinsic, overlooked worth in the films themselves than of too many people with Film Studies degrees who need something fresh to write about, and of a retro-addled culture industry that needs to keep exhuming objects of groovy curiosity for hipster delectation.

Other key works in the Metzger oeuvre.

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