After two years, Jean runs into Claire at a party. He also meets Anne, a beautiful young girl. Turns out that she is being “kept” by Claire as a sex slave. They are engaged in a warped, sadomasochistic relationship. All three visit a rose garden in Paris. Claire makes Anne steal a flower and relieve herself in public. After a less than friendly run in with Jean at a street side bookseller, Claire whips Anne in front of Jean for punishment. Then she forces Anne to pleasure Jean orally while she violates and beats her. They go to dinner. Jean inserts different foods into Anne’s private parts. Claire turns Anne over to Jean, and they visit a lingerie store. Jean forces Anne to orally pleasure the salesgirl while the salesgirl pleasures him. At lunch, Jean and Claire manually violate Anne. Claire arranges a rendezvous for Anne and Jean in a car parked in a public area. They engage in oral sex. Claire invites Jean to watch her bathe Anne. There is more humiliation and golden showers. Finally, in a space known as The Gothic Room, a bondage and torture dungeon that Claire has set up in her home, there is an extended sequence of brutality and suffering, which ends in Jean forcing himself on Anne. This breaks the bond between Claire and Anne, and Anne leaves. The next morning, Claire shows up at Jean’s apartment. She offers herself to him, just as she offered Anne. He accepts.
The Image is a very disturbed movie. It deals frankly, openly, and graphically with sexual perversity and fetishism. This is not to say that it is purely pornography. Far from it. But this is also not to say that it is has redeeming qualities. The Image is a flawed, fascinating study of three competing sexual egos locked in a seedy, degrading S&M menage-a-trois. Bondage, discipline, and the master/slave relationship have never been so skillfully (and sickeningly) portrayed. Unfortunately, everything that director Radley Metzger gets right—the lush Parisian scenery, the stellar casting and sumptuous, beautiful cinematography—are sullied by the tawdry, demeaning tone present. This is a vile cinematic deception; it offers luxurious visual eroticism, and then unexpectedly plunges one into the smelly, sewage filled depths of depravity. Part of the problem is the unholy trio. Anne (Mary Mendum) is never fully explained. She is forced into all manner of humiliating experiences (urination, flogging, oral copulation) with no setup (except “she likes it”) and little to sympathize with. Carl Parker portrays Jean as a feverishly fueled by testosterone lust stud, but his sudden animalistic descent into brutal sadism is handled awkwardly. Claire, the cold hearted dominatrix is given nothing more to do than maintain an ice queen’s scowl and sneer, so when things go horribly awry at the end, any emotion we are supposed to feel for her just doesn’t exist. The first third of the film intrigues us in a way that the remaining, explicitly repellent two thirds completely obliterates.
And this is why it cannot be recommended. In the mid-’70s, after films like I Am Curious, Yellow and Last Tango in Paris brought erotic and pornographic images out of the sin cinema and into mainstream movie houses, the fine line between art and smut was, temporarily, blurred. But The Image, no matter how hard it tries to be a soft-core sensation, just cannot help but consistently cross the line. While the psychosexual overtones are handled exceptionally well, the film degenerates into a series of graphic, repulsive sexual set pieces. Public (and private) pissing is shown in extreme, full frontal, extended close up. The insertion of food into female genitalia and prolonged scenes of whipping and torture are also given a lengthy, x-ray like examination. Ms. Mendum has a scene where she literally screams, bound and gagged, for eight minutes. She wins the Marilynn Burns award for most prolonged and unsettling shock and suffering sequence ever filmed. It is very painful to watch. And yet this wants to be sexual, hoping that the audience finds satisfaction and desirability in her yelps of pain. This mixed message, between the pretty, the profane, and the prurient dooms The Image for anyone outside the core audience of extreme fetishists who would find its type of moral and cinematic corruption enticing.