The Punishment of Anne / The Image / The Mistress and the Slave (1975) **½
Between the look of the film, the date of its release, the Parisian locations, and the absolutely appalling dubbing, you’d swear The Punishment of Anne was a French movie, perhaps something by Just Jaeckin or Walerian Borowczyk. Further hinting in that direction is the movie’s basis in the novel L’Image, by the pseudonymous Jean de Berg, a transparently obvious Story of O rip-off published in France two years after Pauline Reage’s better-known novel. Much of the Gallic appearance is a cunning illusion, however. Though its exteriors were indeed shot in Paris, and though a French production company did have a hand in creating and marketing the picture, The Punishment of Anne is actually an especially extreme work from American arthouse pornographer Radley Metzger, made during the climactic mid-to-late-70’s phase of his career.
The New York-based Metzger is one of the true titans of 60’s and 70’s smut, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Russ Meyer, David Friedman, and Michael and Roberta Findlay. He got his start as a film editor (having worked in that capacity on such movies as The Flesh Eaters and The Beach Girls and the Monster), then started a distribution company called Audubon Films in 1960. In the earliest days, Audubon’s main line of business was the importation of risque movies from Europe, but from the very beginning, Metzger was putting his own distinctive stamp on his product. Even for an envelope-pusher like him, the 60’s were a touchy time in the sex-film business, and much of what was coming in from across the Atlantic had to be censored. Metzger turned this onus into an opportunity, using his experience as an editor to do more than just cut out the dirtiest of the dirty bits; his versions of Audubon’s European imports often play like completely different films from the originals, and many commentators over the years have praised the tighter, sleeker Metzger edits of movies like The Libertine as a marked improvement over the prints which played in France or Sweden or Denmark. Eventually, though, Metzger got the itch to make movies of his own, and Audubon sprouted a production house to parallel the distribution arm of the company— and having both sides of the business under the same roof put Audubon at a distinct advantage in those days when the relationship between independent filmmakers and their distributors was often openly antagonistic. As you might imagine given what Audubon had been distributing up to then, Metzger’s movies are just about the closest thing to Eurosmut that any American director has ever produced. One has to take the good with the bad, however, and in the case of The Punishment of Anne, that means the beautiful settings, beautiful cinematography, and (most importantly) beautiful women are matched up with a sense of pace that leaves much to be desired and a handling of the story that invites a tight focus on characters who are much too underwritten to survive the scrutiny.
One night, an author named Jean (Score’s Carl Parker) attends a tedious party at the home of some friends who live on the Place du Concorde. While he’s there, he runs into an old friend of his, a woman called Claire (Marilyn Roberts) whom he hasn’t seen in almost three years. They get to talking, and Claire introduces Jean to a friend of hers. Jean had already taken notice of Anne (Mary Mendum, from Felicia and Little Girl… Big Tease) independently, and with good reason— not only is she extremely pretty, but she carries herself in a way that seems to say, “I’ve got a secret… Wouldn’t you like to know what it is?” Claire says Anne works as a model, further heightening Jean’s curiosity.
“And?” he asks, trying to prompt the rest of the story.
“And she belongs to me,” Claire replies. Jean can get nothing more out of her.
The next day, Jean meets Claire and Anne for a stroll through the Bagatelle Gardens, “the most beautiful rose garden in the world.” The roses are the least of the attractions to be displayed for Jean’s amusement, though, believe me. Claire demonstrates precisely what she meant about Anne belonging to her, making the girl expose herself to Jean, submit to being stuck in the thigh with a rose thorn, and piss on the ground in a stand of trees while her two companions look on. (That last vignette is preceded by a hilarious intertitle which reads, “III: Too Much Water and Its Consequences.”) Over the indeterminate span of time which comprises the rest of the movie, Jean will spend as much time as he can possibly spare in Claire’s company, helping her devise ever more drastic humiliations and abuse to which to subject Anne. But the moment he has straight-up, missionary-position sex with Anne, Claire flips out and attacks him (as in physically, with a cat o’ nine tails), and Anne leaves the both of them in the aftermath. God alone knows why. Finally, in an epilogue entitled, “X: Everything Resolves Itself,” (in which not a damn thing is resolved, incidentally), Claire comes over to Jean’s place (all the previous action had taken place either at Claire’s house or out and about in the city) and offers herself to Jean in the same way that we might assume Anne once offered herself to Claire. There’s no discernable reason for this, either.
It’s too long, too slow-moving, too eliptical, and relies way too much on voiceover narration, but The Punishment of Anne unquestionably gives the audience its money’s worth of kink. The first shock that will greet the unprepared viewer is the explicitness of the proceedings, which is made even more surprising by the fact that, in contrast to contemporary European practice, the hardcore footage does not come in the form of inserts (although the editing suggests to my eye that Carl Parker used a body double for the numerous blowjob scenes). Where The Punishment of Anne reveals its true colors, however, is not in how much we are shown, but in specifically what. Not content with the usual exhibitionism, lesbianism, and group sex, or with limiting his explorations of bondage and discipline to the spanking and hand-tying one encounters in less aggressive dirty movies, Metzger went absolutely all-out with this film. If a fetish was on the cultural radar in the mid-1970’s, you can just about count on seeing it here; toe-sucking, watersports, and foreign object insertion are only the beginning. The expected whips and chains are there to deal damage, rather than just to look scary and make noise. The sadism here is extreme enough to encompass cheese skewers heated over a gas flame and even strangulation and mock-drowning. And most importantly, The Punishment of Anne delves deeper than nearly any other movie I’ve seen into the power games that are the primary driving force behind most real-world sadomasochistic relationships. True, Just Jaeckin covered much the same territory in The Story of O, but Jaeckin seems not to have really understood it, except perhaps in a detached, intellectual sense. If this movie is any indication, though, Metzger gets it— the difference between Jaeckin’s film and his is the difference between knowledge and insight.
Unfortunately, that difference leads in practice to as much frustration as anything else, because despite his plain instinctive understanding of the transgressive relationships between his characters, Metzger strangely shows no interest in dealing with Jean, Claire, and Anne as actual people. We never find out, for example, how Claire met Anne, or how the two of them came to develop the bond that they share. Furthermore, Metzger and screenwriter Jake Barnes draw attention to this blind spot in the story by dropping a line about Claire never having displayed any sexual interest in women before into the opening monologue of Jean’s almost never-ending narration. Obviously there’s a tale to be told there, but we never get to hear it. We also get only the most tenuous hints of what ties might have existed between Jean and Claire before their reunion at the party, and most of those are then contradicted by the events of the epilogue. With the plot limited essentially to “Jean meets the women; kinky sex ensues; the threesome inexplicably implodes; Jean and Claire start over without Anne,” character becomes the soul of the film, and yet Metzger never lets us inside the characters’ heads even as he demonstrates an unusually deep awareness on his own part of what’s going on in there. It’s like hearing only one side of a telephone conversation, and it leaves The Punishment of Anne far less than the movie it could have been.