Sunday, November 03, 2013

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Lickerish Quartet

So, there’s this middle aged couple (Frank Wolff and Erika Lemberg) and their twenty-something son (Paolo Turco) and if any of these people were given a name I sure as hell missed it and the best even IMDb can do is “castle owner”, “his wife” and “her son”, so I’ll call them Mr and Mrs Sybarite and their son Junior.

So, one evening Mr and Mrs Sybarite and Sybarite Junior are chilling at their castle (as you do), watching a blue movie (as you do) and they decide that watching porn with one’s nearest and dearest is simply too boring, so they get the Rolls out (as you do) and go tootling off into town where a carnival has just set up stall (as carnivals do), and it’s while they’re admiring the spirited derring-do of the wall-of-death motorcycle riders that they recognise one of said daredevils as an actress from the stag film they were checking out earlier and Mr Sybarite seizes the opportunity to invite her back to the castle.

With the codicil “and humping ensues”, the paragraph above is a pretty effective summary of Radley Metzger’s 1970 slab of eroto-weirdness; and, ladies and gentlemen, something in my mind imploded while I was typing it. Seriously: castles, carnivals, porn actresses riding the wall-of-death and 16mm b&w dirty movie screenings that you watch with your son present. Whisky tango foxtrot?!?!

Metzger has made an appearance on The Agitation of the Mind before, with the self-consciously artsy ‘The Image’. That film, while taking itself far too seriously for a sexploitationer, at least benefited from (a) a sense of aesthetic remove akin to David Cronenberg’s almost scientifically observational directorial style, and (b) a committed and poignant central performance by Rebecca Brooke.

‘The Lickerish Quartet’, made five years earlier, boasts the stylish cinematography that would mark out ‘The Image’ as more than just mere hand-shandy fodder, but none of its narrative coherence, nor its debate on control, subjugation and power games. It tries for a statement on the interchangeability of sexual identity; however, Metzger goes about this as if he’s Alain Resnais on crack, flipping between b&w and colour, replaying scenarios with different participants, swapping identities, breaking the fourth wall, thumbing his nose at logic and generally running around behind the camera waving his arms in the air and yelling, “Hey everybody, I’m doing the old blurred lines between fantasy and reality thing. With tits.”

Nor does ‘The Lickerish Quartet’ have anyone in its cast who compares to Rebecca Brooke. As the porn star/wall-of-death rider, Silvana Venturelli is smouldering and seductive and that’s how it should be, but the script gives her sod all to work with and her performance stays jammed in first gear. Even Lemberg, an accomplished thespian, can do little but stare into the distance and deliver monologues dreamily. (‘The Lickerish Quartet’ is an inordinately talky film.) Of Turco I will only say that the lad probably had to be very careful in the proximity of timber yards – you can see how a yard hand could mistake him for a length of two-by-four and sell him to a joiner. Only Wolff delivers anything that passes for acting, and he’s the last one of the quartet that you want to see naked.

And what better way to segue into the entire fucking point of the movie – the rumpy-pumpy – that from a paragraph that ends with the word “naked”. Yes, folks, the cast get naked in ‘The Lickerish Quartet’, but perhaps not as often as you’d expect. Sure, the blue movie that runs in the background during the sexual cat-and-mouse between the participants is something of a constant and the version of Venturelli’s character who appears in it is pretty much unclothed throughout, but Metzger presents this footage as so scratchy, faded and jumpy that it makes your average ‘Grindhouse’ fake trailer look like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. In terms of the pairings off of the quartet, filmed in glorious Technicolor for our viewing pleasure, there are only really three combinations, they play out predictably, and with the exception of a nicely built-up-to Sapphic seduction …

… they’re generally devoid of chemistry. Wolff and Venturelli get it on in a bizarrely designed library that contains guns as well as books and has dictionary definitions of sexually related words lining the floor.

As the shot above demonstrates, much of the consummation in ‘The Lickerish Quartet’ is presented less as an unstoppable rush of wanton hedonistic desire than unsold slabs of meat piled on top of each other just before the deli closes and they get thrown out.

Metzger’s ambition as a filmmaker isn’t disputed. While some peddlers of trouser arouser fare – Russ Meyer, say – were absolutely categorical about the nature of their work, Metzger wanted his films to be more. And kudos to the guy. ‘The Lickerish Quartet’ – while it’s never quite as clever as it wants to be, as sexy as it ought to be, or as subversive as you’d think it is – remains a handsomely mounted film into which no small amount of thought was pooled. Along with naked ladies. And a naked Frank Wolff. Ah well, you can’t win ’em all.

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