I've heard "The Image" described as cruel, erotic, and--perhaps most notably--evil. Just as many commentators (in many cases the same commentators) have dubbed the film director Radley Metzger's masterpiece. I'm inclined to agree with all of these assessments. This should be a fairly easy movie to dismiss as a phallic fantasy of dominance and submission in which the man's unflinching will ultimately rules over all womanhood. The careful craftsmanship and loving attention paid to sheer viciousness in this film marks it as a valentine to the psychology of BDSM.
"The Image" is a lush screen adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jean de Berg. Interestingly, "Jean de Berg" is a pen name used by Catherine Robbe-Grillet (wife of author and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote a pseudonymous introduction to the first edition of the novel), marking this tale as something other than a product of a misogynistic male imagination.
The film nods to its literary roots from the very beginning, using intertitle cards announcing each "chapter" of the story. We begin with "Dinner at the X's," spelled out in silent-film style, and the narrator begins his recounting...
Let's discuss that narration. Simply put--it's problematic. The voice of the speaker sounds distractingly similar to the voice of the gent on those old "advance the filmstrip when you hear this sound" jobbies. Except, instead of detailing the specifics of truck farming, the narrator is elaborating on his efforts to bed a beautiful model. This distracting narration takes some getting used to and if one can manage to lessen its impact, the film is otherwise hypnotically, almost dangerously, engaging.
At the dinner announced in the first title card, narrator Jean meets his acquaintance Claire and her younger companion Anne. Over cocktails, Jean learns that lovely, doe-eyed Anne "belongs" to Claire and receives a firsthand demonstration of this strange relationship the next day at a Parisian rose garden.
Things take a turn for the kinky when Anne is subjected to a series of tests by her cruel mistress, beginning with forced nudity and progressing to bloodletting via rose thorns and a bit of public urination-on-command. And by "kinky," I actually mean "explicit." I was surprised to see these acts unflinchingly depicted on-screen. There's no cutaway at a strategic moment--the "little fountain" and its product are shown in deliberate, eroticized close-up. The juxtaposition is a little startling, really--the film manages to be thoughtfully-structured and expensive-looking while still being unrepentantly sexual.
There's a great little montage where Jean is contemplating pursuing a sexual rendezvous with Claire in which gushing fountains and the penises of statues are intercut with shots of Jean grinning evilly and remembering his rose garden interlude. It's a moment when the director seems to declare "Fuck Subtlety" and just goes for it in a sleazetastic fashion. I kinda commend this, really.
To what degree the movie becomes sexual is demonstrated in a later scene in which Anne is punished by Claire and Jean for rebuffing Jean. A crazy porntastic soundtrack brimming with wawa pedal and driving bass throbs in the background while Anne is flogged and fellates Jean. Cut-away? You BET there isn't! In fact, there are several more scenes of graphic oral sex later in the film. The film is so full of nudity and graphic sex that it was actively difficult to select screen captures that were of a less-than-X nature! Almost every frame of the film is so lovingly crafted, however, that the entire thing begs to be seen in still frame.
The full range of kink is on display in this movie--foot worship, watersports, beatings, bondage, cutting, temporary piercing, blood-drawing, hiding hors d'ouevres in Anne's vagina (!!!), and a range of psychological tortures including forced sexual encounters with strangers are depicted. No penetrative sex is on tap until the climactic scene. Claire and Jean have abused Anne in a scene that's almost difficult to watch due to its intensity. Anne's cries of anguish are almost too real, and the sadism of the two dominant figures is portrayed with a true sense of nastiness. Overcome by desire, Jean takes Anne sexually, after which Claire cracks and beats Jean. Anne, sensing the weakness in Claire's display, walks out of the relationship after this episode. In a role reversal that's far-from-startling given some of the hints dropped early in the film, Claire then offers herself as a submissive to Jean. And so it goes...
The movie is marked by an amazing performance by Mary Mendum as Anne--her trepidation, fear, erotic tension, and ultimate sexual release just vibrate on-screen. In the scene where Claire and Jean first conspire to abuse her for her impudence to Jean at the booksellers, there is a closeup shot where Anne goes from anguish to eagerness. Her complicity in the goings-on is unmistakable. This is a woman who wants to be dominated. Speaking the line "forgive me, for I know what I do," Anne throws herself to the vicious sport of her chosen captors.
My previous exposure to Metzger's work was via "Camille 2000," which I found to be a little empty and lacking in chemistry. Metzger seems not to know what to do with his male leads--he feels they're integral to the story and yet they languish in cartoon-character limbo.
Carl Parker's Jean is no exception. He plays his role with a sleazy, leering quality that is kind of uncomfortable to watch. In the context of this story, this creeposity serves a purpose, but I couldn't help feeling that a more three-dimensional male lead would've added another layer to the pervy puzzle that is this film.
This is not a movie for everyone's tastes--it's graphic and mean-spirited and utterly unrepentant. Notably, it eats the lunch of the Just Jaeckin adaptation of "The Story of O" and benefits rather than suffers from its embrace of hardcore sexual elements. By depicting the sadomasochism of the characters in such an explicit manner, Metzger allows the viewer to come to his own conclusions regarding the nuances of this relationship.