Camille 2000 (1969)

Before his walk on the walk side of sexploitation's murky territories as "Henry Paris", expertly transforming what could have been potentially shameful into transcendentally sublime over the course of five fabulous fuck films that Video-X-Pix is currently commemorating with beautifully restored multi-disc DVD editions packed with amazing additions, Radley Metzger was already one of the world's most revered erotic auteurs, widely acclaimed for his "European" sexual sophistication separating him from other American adult filmmakers such as Russ Meyer and Joe Sarno.  Until Gerard Damiano's in hindsight perhaps mildly unfortunate landmark Deep Throat made it impossible for dirty moviemakers to revert back to the subtle charms of softcore simulation, Metzger's outrageously opulent skin epics (often shot on the Continent, where chic came comparatively cheap) successfully stood out like 24kt diamonds among the grindhouse genre's gaudy rhinestones. 

Audiences aching for an illicit thrill - and remember, this was way before Just Jaeckin's groundbreaking Emmanuelle made it okay for middle class masses to do so - feverishly flocked to the director's refined depictions of depraved orgies thrown by the rich and famous tabloids dared only hint at.  Therese and Isabelle took an indiscreet peek behind the velvet curtains of a boarding school for the daughters of diplomats and, more importantly, revealed the Old World pulchritude of Swedish Essy Persson and Hungarian Anna Gaël.  Carmen, Baby provided Prosper Mérimée's supremely slutty anti-heroine (immortalized through Georges Bizet's insanely hummable opera) with a '60s jet set incarnation in the sensational shape of German skinflick strumpet Uta Levka who was to shift gears dramatically at the dawn of the new decade, sidelining for Sam Arkoff's AIP in the unheralded Gordon Hessler duo of The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream AgainLittle Mother allowed Hollywood heartthrob Hardy Krüger's comely offspring Christiane an eagerly grasped opportunity to flex considerable thespian talents in Metzger's incisive "roman à clef" adaptation of the life and times of Argentina's erstwhile controversial first lady Eva "Evita" Peron, long before Andrew Lloyd Webber (and, God help us, Madonna) got there.

In adapting Alexandre Dumas' timeless and frequently filmed tale of doomed courtesan Marguerite Gautier as an eye-popping vision of a decadent near future filtered through late '60s rose-tinted glasses, Metzger created a full-fledged kitsch masterpiece that garnered him some of the best reviews of his entire career. Underneath its colorfully campy exterior however beats a warm heart, courtesy of its central romance treated with surprising delicacy, beautifully acted by both leads. Best known for his jeune premier turn in Jacques Demy's innovative French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, handsome Nino Castelnuovo makes for a dashing yet appealingly vulnerable Armand. Gorgeous Danièle Gaubert - whose life would tragically parallel her character's, passing away at the age of 44 in 1987 - proves much more than an outrageously attired fashion plate, breathing life into the seemingly shallow party girl everyone covets but no one can truly possess. It was to be the undisputed highlight of a brief and disappointing career that ended with George Englund's ludicrous suspense on the slopes crime drama Snow Job in 1972, that lowly potboiler's sole merit being Gaubert's meeting with Olympic ski champ Jean-Claude Killy, her husband until her untimely death.

The familiar story has been transferred from Paris to Rome though original French character names have been rather illogically retained. Kept woman to an elderly Duke, flighty Marguerite's the toast of the jet set when she catches the eye of Armand Duval, in town to meet up with his absent industrialist father, played by the excellent Massimo Serato whose best work was still ahead of him, performing creepy character turns in underrated "gialli" like Armando Crispino's Autopsy and Antonio Bido's The Bloodstained Shadow. Although his friend Gaston (Roberto Bisacco who had portrayed Paris in Franco Zeffirelli's rendition of Romeo and Juliet and would go on to star in Sergio Martino's terrific Torso) tries to dissuade him, he's already smitten. Touched by his sincerity but harboring a deep dark secret, the professional mistress takes him under her wing while simultaneously attempting to avoid emotional involvement. Dazzling use of multiple mirrors during their extended lovemaking sequences has been met with both delight and derision, a bold mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous which effectively places the film beyond camp yet simultaneously dating it as a product of its excessive decade.

Naturally, things have to go wrong at some stage. Having fallen in love for the first time, Marguerite starts pawning off her expensive jewelry in order to keep her unwitting boyfriend in the manner he's accustomed to. Their romantic seaside holiday's rudely interrupted by Armand's dad who believes her to be a golddigger until she defiantly confronts him with evidence to the contrary, surely Gaubert's finest acting moment in the entire film, albeit closely followed by the traditionally noble suffering once her health goes South. Convinced by his father that Armand would be better off without her, Marguerite pretends she no longer cares about him which only sends him scurrying towards her erstwhile rival Olympe, played by voluptuous Silvana Venturelli whose finest hour came in Metzger's Magnum Opus The Lickerish Quartet that following year. These shifting affections give way to one of the most amazing sequences in the director's entire body of work, a hedonistic S&M party thrown by Olympe with Armand taunting his former lover, shackled to the latest in a long line of aristocratic "sponsors" (Philippe Forquet's Comte de Varville), by disrobing and doing the hostess in plain view ! Dramatic lighting galvanizes Venturelli's sensational curves, cavorting amid certifiably crazy set design by Enrico Sabbatini whose operatic sense of grandeur would similarly illuminate Dario Argento's elusive Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

Every aspect of Camille 2000 breathes lavish luxury, from the Eternal City's timeless locations given a velvet sheen by revered cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri who shot Vittorio De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Contini's and Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon to the alternately groovy and lushly romantic score by Piero Piccioni of Lina Wertmüller's Swept Away fame. Though Metzger's movies played respectable first run venues, they're frequently lumped together in retrospect with the rest of the decade's "adults only" cinema, including the sort of sleazy no budget sexploitation that can't even begin to compare, not just where the budget's concerned but in terms of directorial talent or dedication. While a surfeit of surface gloss forces the film uncomfortably close to fashionista fascism at times, Metzger's mercurial meticulousness saves the day, his sensitivity as both filmmaker and story teller extending to the inclusion of an openly gay character portrayed in a for the time uncommonly sympathetic light, dress designer Gody (one shot Zachary Adams), one of Marguerite's few friends to show genuine concern as her health starts to deteriorate.

Directed by Radley Metzger. Written by Michael DeForrest, based on La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. Produced by Metzger for Spear Productions. Photographed by Ennio Guarnieri. Music by Piero Piccioni. Edited by Amedeo Salfa & Humphrey Hinshelwood. Starring Danièle Gaubert (Marguerite Gautier), Nino Castelnuovo (Armand Duval), Silvana Venturelli (Olympe), Eleonora Rossi Drago (Prudence), Massimo Serrato (Armand's Father), Roberto Bisacco (Gaston), Zachary Adams (Gody) & Philippe Forquet (Comte de Varville). Running time : 130 minutes.

Grandmaster of erotic cinema : living legend Radley Metzger