Radley Metzger, 1968
Starring: Essy Persson, Anna Gaël, Barbara Laage, Anne Vernon
One of the earliest films to present a positive and erotic portrayal of lesbianism, Metzger’s well-known art film concerns two teenagers, the quiet Therese and the rebellious Isabelle. They meet at boarding school after These is abandoned there by her newly remarried mother. She strikes up an intense friendship with Isabelle, one that quickly turns into a secret love affair, as intense as it is brief. Soon after their relationship begins in earnest, Isabelle’s mother takes her away to somewhere else in Europe, never to be seen again by Therese.
Based on the novel by Violette Leduc, this French-U.S.-Dutch co-production is framed by scenes of the adult Therese visiting the boarding school and remembering her relationship with Isabelle. Some of Leduc’s flowery prose is preserved in lengthy narration, a technique used in nearly all of Metzger’s early films and a lot of ‘60s erotica. The voice-overs are primarily used during the drawn out sex scenes between the girls. These moments are light on nudity or explicit sex and instead focus on eroticism and romance. As with some of Metzger’s early films, there are facial close ups and a lot of staring intensely at the ceiling and moaning, but mostly out of focus, heavily shadowed scenes that imply more than they show. Their sexual exploration is melancholic, slow, and full of discovery.
The lovely Essy Persson (she starred in the earlier, erotic Swedish film, I, A Woman, which was distributed by Metzger in the U.S. and was very scandalous at the time) is clearly too old to play a teenage girl, but is otherwise perfect for the role. Her somber, lovesick presence nearly overwhelms Hungarian actress Anna Gaël (Erotic Trap, Nana and a very interesting life in addition to her acting career), though the latter has some key scenes, such as a fist fight with another girl at school and a frustrating scene where she hires a room at a whore house so that she and Therese can be alone together for once. The characters of Therese and Isabelle are both very basic, which limits the film to a certain extent, but prevents things from getting too complicated or silly. Therese and Isabelle also eschews the typical characterizations used by Metzger in many of his films from this period: the strong, independent, and sexually experienced woman with a troubled life that has a tragic outcome.
With the increased eroticism, beautiful black and white cinematography from Hans Jura, and somewhat tragic romance, I mostly viewed Therese and Isabelle as one of the filmic stepping stones to Metzger’s later, more sexual and more interesting works. It is certainly one of his most accessible efforts and is unlikely to shock any modern viewers. The film is historically important because of its positive portrayal of the lesbian relationship. It brings the lonely, love-starved Therese an intense connection with someone else and only ends poorly because Isabelle is removed from school. The final scenes of the young Therese show her being comforted by another school mate and running off to play a game. This has elements of later films like Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, and though I am pleased that Therese and Isabelle has a more positive ending, I think Metzger, with his trademark style, could have further explored their imaginative inner lives and developing sexual fantasies.
The vagueness of the plot and inconclusive ending is in Metzger’s favor, making this film feel more like a sad, erotic daydream than an exercise in realism. Fans of ‘60s erotica will enjoy this slow burn of a film, rich with atmosphere and surprisingly thick erotic tension, despite the lack of shock value for contemporary audiences. There is a decent DVD from Image/First Run that is worth checking out. Ignore most of the other reviews, which either say this is one of Metzger’s masterpieces (those come a little later) or mainstream negative reviews like the one from the frequently idiotic Ebert, who declared, “This is it, the worst movie of the year.”