The Image (1975), also known as The Punishment of Anne, is an erotic drama directed by Radley Metzger, which he adapted from the novel L’Image (1956) by “Jean de Berg”, a pseudonym of Catherine Robbe-Grillet.
The Image is on the threshold between porn and “real” movies, characteristic of the mid-1970s; it got an X rating in the USA. It makes good use of Paris locations and professional directing, but the plot and characterization are a bit lacking. It. Also unlike a lot of the movies discussed in this project, this has frontal male and female nudity and even shots of fellatio and Anne urinating. There are, however, no shots of genital penetration.
The film takes place in the rarefied, aspirational movie world in which writers can afford gigantic luxurious apartments in major cities. Jean, a writer, goes to a black tie literary cocktail party and meets a former acquaintance, Claire, another writer, and a younger woman, Anne. Claire describes her as “Just a young model…. She belongs to me.” They go to a restaurant for an afterparty, where Claire fondles Anne under the table. Later, the trio go for a walk in the Paris rose gardens, where Claire makes Anne urinate before them.
The film presents the classic hetero male fantasy of being invited into a threesome with a female-female couple. Jean doesn’t have to engineer this scenario; Claire just serves it up to him, and he walks into it, very entitled. A lot of this is Jean watching as the women interact, catering to the heterosexual voyeuristic male gaze. Even when Claire dominates Anne, she constantly looks to Jean the observer. Claire tells Anne, “Look at Jean! It’s at his request you’re being punished.” Claire’s attitude to Anne alternates between condescension and jealousy.
If the first act of The Image is about voyeurism, the second is about exhibitionism. Claire “loans” Anne to Jean. He’s into sex in public places with Anne, and we get vignettes of their trysts scattered around Paris. The trio’s dynamic shifts slightly, with Jean and Anne as the performers who report Claire as the observer.
The third act is about sadomasochism, building up to the big scene in the “Gothic chamber” of Claire’s apartment. Jean is back to being primarily a voyeur as Claire puts Anne through her paces, including making her urinate (on camera) before Jean
When Anne is hanging nude from the Gothic chandelier, and Claire is applying heated metal spikes to her body, this is when the performance is the most intense. Anne howls like a wild animal. When Jean whips her, at Claire’s behest, she turns silent and focused. (The whip resembles a flogger or martinet, but the sound effects are like bullwhip cracks, and all the impacts are off camera.)
When Jean finishes coitus with Anne, Claire suddenly goes berserk and attacks him, yelling “Damn you.” When Jean tries to push Claire away, Anne grabs a champagne bottle and smashes it over his head. Jean leaves.
Suddenly more self-possessed, Anne gets up and says, “I’m leaving.”
Claire asks, “What will I do?”
Anne glances at Jean’s abandoned jacket, then leaves.
This is the only scene in the movie between the two women, without Jean. There are no scenes of just the two women together sexually, and only a few moments that aren’t in Jean’s point of view. The Image strongly differs from The Duke of Burgundy or The Piano Teacher in that we get no direct insight into the subjectivity of the women.
We know nothing about Anne other than she’s a model. After their initial encounter, Jean meets Anne in public at a newsstand. She’s on a mission from Claire to get a rare book only sold under the counter, and she’s far more self-possessed and assertive with Jean than before. Her intense facial expression as she bottoms shows her willing participation. She paraphrases the Passion of the Christ by saying, “Forgive me for I know what I do.” After the scene in the Gothic Chamber, Anne just casually tosses the shackles away and walks off, without any attachment to Claire or Jean, despite the depths of her submission. For her, it really is just a game, and she can go play it with someone else.
It’s Claire who is revealed as hung up, nursing an infatuation with Jean and her own submissive desires, but projecting them onto Anne. Before she “lends” Anne to Jean, Claire shows him a series of sadomasochistic photographs. Most are of Anne, but one shows what appears to be a different woman, though her face is obscured. Jean suspects this is actually Claire, though she is evasive.
The most direct reading is that Claire is using Anne as a proxy for herself to seduce Jean, with resulting jealousy that he’s more drawn to the younger and submissive Anne than the older, remote Claire. Jean’s narration states he never saw Claire as a “potential conquest” because of her lack of vulnerability. The film ends with the solution to the problem: Claire goes to Jean’s home, dressed in a girlish outfit like Anne previously wore, and submits to him.
From an ideological perspective, this ending asserts the primacy of heterosexuality (Jean + Claire) over homosexuality (Anne + Claire), male dominance over female dominance, and vanilla coitus over kink. The last shot of this film is the Eiffel tower standing proud and erect, with Claire ecstatically moaning on the soundtrack.
Radley Metzger had a history of making sexually provocative films, and was a major director during the “golden age of porn” in the 1970s. Anne was played by Mary Mendum, who appeared in a number of other pornographic features in the 1970s. Claire was played by Marilyn Roberts, who had only a handful of other acting credits, including a role on Mary Tyler Moore. Carl Parker (Jean) was primarily a model, and after this film went into real estate. Catherine Robbe-Grillet, a French actress and writer, wrote the original novel under a male pseudonym. She wrote other sadomasochistic fiction, and appeared in a 2014 documentary called The Ceremony, showing her as a dominatrix.
Addendum: The Rialto Report has an in-depth exploration of the making of The Image, as well as an account of the first meeting of the film’s director and the author of the source material.