With its gorgeous, quintessentially late-sixties euro-lounge musical score and a sun-dappled picturesque location set among the mountains, valleys and olive groves of central Italy, “The Lickerish Quartet” could pass easily for the kind of high-end ‘arthouse’ erotic European import that American director-producer Radley Metzger’s Audobon Films had been buying up the rights to and distributing with some degree of financial success among English-speaking countries since the mid-sixties. But this was actually Metzger’s own follow-up to his lavish, psychedelic Op Art extravaganza of the previous year, “Camille 2000”. An Italian/West German/ U.S. co-production, it was shot, like that previous film, in Italy, because Metzger liked to produce two movies in every country he worked in.
It was made in the traditional Italian way, too: with a mixed nationality, mixed language cast whose dialogue was post-synced later by dubbing actors brought in to loop the lines of those performers whose English was somewhat less than ideal. It had been the success of Metzger’s recent projects which allowed him an unusual piece of directorial self-indulgence with this film: for unlike his other work, which had been inspired by or adapted from pre-existing source material, the screenplay for “The Lickerish Quartet” was written by Metzger’s collaborator on “Camille 2000” Michael de Forrest, and based on a story idea originally conceived by the both of them, entitled “Hide & Seek”.
Specific scenes were customised to fit the location -- a vast 15th century castle with imposing crenelated towers situated in the municipality of Balsorano -- which had been scouted well in advance of work beginning on the film. The movie finds Metzger letting his ‘artistic’ inclinations off the leash much more overtly than before, visibly foregrounding his regard for the work of Ingmar Bergman and Alain Resnais, for example -- the latter in particular obviously having a huge bearing on the style of “The Lickerish Quartet” in its abstract, non-realist mode of narrative construction, which tries to encapsulate dual themes relating to the unreliability of memory and of fantasy’s role in the construction and disassembly of identity. This was very much Metzger’s bid for personal artistic expression, which plays these days like nothing so much as a psychedelic sixties version of one of David Lynch’s fugue state movies like “Mulholland Drive” or Inland Empire”, but with a much more manageable 87 minute running time.
The difference is, the film retains the erotic content of Metzger’s earlier pictures and was still intended to be sold to the same audience for erotica that might have frequented those more conventionally structured works. It also continues Metzger’s tendency to devise for his material mannered displays of eroticism which take place between members of a decadent upper-class inhabiting an accessorised luxury mise-en-scène of elaborately decorated sets and lavishly designed costumes, which bring to the films an expensive-looking opulence that reached its peak in the detailed, stylised backdrops constructed by art director and costume designer Enrico Sabbatini for “Camille 2000”.
Sabbatini’s amazing and striking work for that film lent an ostensibly lightweight, mod re-working of Alexandre Dumas Fils’ classic novel a coherent, thematic underpinning that also imbued it with a stylishness and intellectual import it might not otherwise have deserved. It’s not surprising, then, that Sabbatini was called back again by Metzger for this even more ambitious project -- although this time the colourful, modernist pop art trappings are mainly restricted to just one particular scene. But alongside the photographic lushness and undisguised arthouse pretensions (and I’m not using that word pejoratively here), Metzger was this time also out to push the envelope in terms of the strength of the erotic content he was prepared to include in the movie. “Camille 2000” only ever contained very light nudity, and barely even feels worthy of the erotic tag it was originally sold under when viewed nowadays; just one year later though, and “The Lickerish Quartet” now incorporates several instances of full-frontal nudity, both male and female, for the first time. It’s still rather coy on occasions (with a strategically positioned mounted bust used to obscure genitalia during the outrageously camp library love scene, for instance) and Metzger hedged his bets by also filming ‘cool’ semi-clothed or truncated versions of each erotic scene in case he ran into censorship problems later on down the line, although it gives some measure of just how much attitudes had changed by 1970 that, in the event, he didn’t need to use any of them and their inclusion as an extra here (and on other releases) marks the first time fans would have been able to see them.
The film presents a set of family relationships which seem to be defined fairly solidly early on in the story, but which become unstable and more inscrutable as imagery relating to a film-within-a-film that the assembled company is shown projecting at the very start of the movie, is re-contextualised or altered in subtle ways with each repetition. Metzger intended to comment on how something that forms apparently so fixed a record of its place and period as film can in fact shift in meaning and is often rather impermanent; the experiences we have can often be affected by, and be changed according to, the type of audience we happen to be observing a piece of film with at any one time; our own past personal experience will invariably also affect how we see what we see by creating certain associations that shape emotional responses to the imagery; yet personal memory becomes more unreliable over time when recalling what we think we observed in the first place.
We’re let in on the fact early on, that this film might be aiming to stimulate the viewer cerebrally as well as in the more usual areas the average skin flick is calculated to appeal to, when Metzger starts the movie by quoting from Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play “Six Characters in Search of an Author”. The themes usually associated with this Italian writer, such as the mutability of reality and fantasy and the instability of personal identity are thus suggested from the off and Metzger is able to immediately move on to fulfilling some of the erotic requirements of the piece by opening on what looks like a grainy 8mm stag reel depicting a foursome, with offstage voices commenting on the ‘action’ as the camera pulls back to reveal the projection screen situated in an large medieval castle, decorated with baronial shields and elaborate tapestries, and several medieval triptychs that augment the trendy modern furnishings and art deco ornaments its inhabitants have imported into their surroundings.
The three attendees at this porno home cine-club consist of an unnamed husband and wife (American actor Frank Wolff who spent most of his acting career in Italy, before taking his own life not long after making this film; and former German matinee starlet of the ‘50s and ‘60s Erika Remberg, who appeared in “Circus of Horrors”  and in one of the many British 1960s Edgar Wallace films of the period) and their grown-up son Peter (Paolo Turco), who is actually the husband’s step-son. In this strikingly eccentric setting, that mixes modern design opulence with a sombre medieval historical backdrop, each member of the family reacts to the scratchy black-and-white images of eroticism which appear on the projection screen in a manner that indicates something of each of their own intrinsic beings: the husband’s desire for control of his environment and a need to dominate the people in his life emerges from his stewardship of the projector (he derives particular enjoyment from re-running the film backwards and at the wrong speed); the younger man’s resentment and distrust of his stepfather gradually comes to light also; and the wife’s peculiar fascination with certain portions of the imagery which seem in some way to evoke flashes of memory in her emerges -- although it is unclear how much of the WW2 brothel storyline (which seems to surreally intertwine with the rough amateur sex play footage) is part of the original movie, and how much is the result of confabulations or substitutions in the trio’s collective memories. One thing which all the viewers do seem to share is an interest in the honey blonde beauty who appears as the main attraction in all of these disordered, jumbled sequences. When the family party leaves the confines of its 15th century mountainside fortress to visit a carnival attraction in the nearby town down in the valley, they’re astounded to discover that the female stunt motorcyclist wowing the crowds with her skill on the Wall of Death appears to be the same girl from the stag film, although she is now a brunette instead of a blonde. It becomes of paramount importance, especially for the husband, to persuade the young woman to come back to the castle with them so that she can be confronted with her sketchy past.
The young woman in question is played by the lovely Silvana Venturelli. This little seen actress seemed to fade quickly into obscurity after her two Metzger outings (her previous role being that of the scheming Olympia in “Camille 2000”), appearing in only a handful of other films before giving up the profession to have a family. Certainly she has the sort of on-screen charisma and girlish good looks that would’ve earned her a mighty reputation among euro-cult fans if she’d carried on a little longer in the business. Here Sabbatini ensures she grabs our attention immediately by dressing her in an entirely white, skin-tight leather cat suit, which she then retains during her soiree with the castle family. The stunt woman’s presence in their home leads to a series of increasingly surreal exchanges between all four players (especially after the son makes her the centre of one of his magic acts) which bring more and more of an abstract quality to the film’s drama -- with flashbacks, flash-forwards and alternate takes seeming to echo the mixed up structure of the protected black-and-white film-within-a-film. Furthermore, when the party does re-view the stag reel in the presence of their guest, the footage no longer seems to be quite the same as it was the first time. This is cleverly done by Metzger and co. For example, the face of the blonde guest is often no longer clearly visible in much of the replayed footage, although the action it depicts seems otherwise the same, causing the viewer to also become unsure of what exactly they did or did not see the first time the film was played. It’s a technique that nicely evokes that feeling one sometimes experiences of re-watching a movie after a long period of time and having it no longer feel like the same work we remembered it being.
The air of unreality is further enhanced when Peter claims to have had a vision as a child of Saint Margaret being reborn after her medieval execution, which he apparently experienced metaphorically by seeing her being bloodily eaten by a dragon. The details of the vision repeats imagery that is contained in the medieval triptychs which surround the screening room in the castle and creates a suggestion that these characters are cast adrift of all context other than that which is created by the matrix of their own intertwining perceptions.
In the second half of the film, Venturelli’s character seduces each member of the family in turn after discarding her persona of naivety (and with it, what turns out to be her brunette wig) and taking on the appearance and personality of the sexually liberated performer the others imagined, or thought they saw her portray, originally in the film, in a series of seduction sequences which again are made to appear fantasy-like because of Sabbatini supplying Venturelli with a series of exotic costume changes for each one of them, even though she was seen arriving at the castle with nothing but the biker leathers she stood in. Sabbatini’s pop art library set (the only portion of the movie shot outside the Piccolomini castle location, at the world famous Cinecittà studios) also ensures that the first seduction scene becomes the film’s most memorable set-piece, as a decidedly unsightly Frank Wolff gets to cavort buck naked (flappy bits flaccidly flopping in full view!) on a stark white circular library floor designed as a dictionary themed black & white mosaic of sexual words accompanied by their dictionary definitions, surrounded by shelves of brightly coloured volumes and a display of muskets. The son is seduced in the olive groves to a romantic sun-drenched boss nova dance groove from composer Stelvio Cipriani (credited as Stephen Cipriani on the title credits) while the wife succumbs in a striking evening gown made of feathers (again the imaginative work of Enrico Sabbatini) before the projected film which first precipitated these escapades.
Metzger succeeds in creating a piece of work here which genuinely draws the viewer in with its puzzle box-like construction, and which does actually seem to make some sort of narrative sense upon subsequent viewings, as the traumatic past histories of each member of the small group of central characters appears to be encoded within the editing patterns of abstract fantasy and erotic play, forming an obscured storyline which the film also hints at in some of the dialogue. As a piece of softcore erotica, it perhaps struggles somewhat since, despite the instances of full frontal nudity, the sex scenes are brief and comparatively scarce considering the film would have been sold on the strength of its erotic content at the time. As ever with Metzger’s work, though it makes for a sumptuous piece of eye candy (although not on the budgetary scale of “Camille 2000”) that always looks fabulous and makes the most of its unusual locations and of Sabbatini’s consummate talents, so that it can now be perhaps better appreciated more as a euro-cult pseudo-arthouse oddity rather than straight erotica.
The Arrow Video Blu-ray presents a lovely HD transfer for the most part, although there are still lots of imperfections in the source print and in the soundtrack, which has low background crackling occasionally, with the picture suffering from the odd speckle and even a cigarette burn to mark a reel change at one point. This isn’t too distracting though and the restoration and colour grading means that like “Camille 2000” this looks more ravishing than it ever has before, and is something of a revelation in comparison to previous DVD versions. The film is uncut and the English mono soundtrack comes with optional English SDH subtitles.
The accompanying audio commentary with Radley Metzger, moderated by Michael Bowen, is a pleasurable listen and although Metzger is unwilling or unable to offer any analysis he does supply copious background information on the shooting of the film. “Mind Games: The Making of The Lickerish Quartet” is an informative 12 minute featurette narrated by Rick Ufflek which includes some behind the scenes footage and snippets from recently discovered film which contains the original on-set soundtrack used as a guide for the dubbing artists who would loop the dialogue later. Frank Wolff and Erika Remberg dubbed their own voices in the finished version, but Venturelli and Paolo Turco were dubbed by different performers because their English was too poor. We get a chance to hear their original performances with the discovery of this raw footage, which also contains Metzger’s off-stage direction.
Also recently discovered in the vaults are those ‘cool’ versions of all the love scenes which Metzger shot as an insurance policy against possible censorship. The film isn’t in good condition but the full half-hour is included here to allow viewers to see the sharp difference in how these scenes might have been handled in an alternate soft version of the film should they have been required.
“Giving Voice to the Quartet” provides a lengthier comparison between the location soundtrack and the finished dubbed soundtrack on a number of key scenes from the film.
Finally, trailers for “Camille 222”, “The Lickerish Quartet” and “Score” are included, and the dual-disc package (which includes a DVD version with the same extras) also comes with a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Robin Bougie.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!