Cinema: Therese and Isabelle

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This feelie probably goes as far as the permissive law permits. Based on a novella by Violette Leduc, a gifted French writer who is an admitted lesbian, the film tells the old story of homosexual love between school chums. Therese is played by Sweden's pouty-lipped Essy Persson, and Isabelle by France's blonde, big-eyed Anna Gael. They make love with their clothes on in a toilet cubicle and the school chapel, and with their clothes off in bed and in the woods. There is also a prolonged bout of autoeroticism and, just for variety, one heterosexual encounter; a voice-over narrative explains, in Leduc's empurpled prose, what the camera is relentlessly recording.

A decade ago, this kind of love play would have been hard to find outside the confines of mephitic movie houses that feature such titles as The Orgy at Lil's Place and Lust Weekend. Now, however, Therese and Isabelle is appearing in the same kind of neighborhood art house that in better days showed films by Antonioni and Godard. In short, the old skinema is putting on airs and is making a bid for the middle-class matron in the afternoon and the middle-class couple at night.

Pioneer of the pseudo-respectable porno picture was I, a Woman, a cheap, Swedish-made study of nymphomania. It seemed destined for the grind-house circuit until Distributor Radley Metzger, a sometime actor and film editor, had the bright idea of booking it into a New York art theater. Since 1966, the film, which Metzger bought for $75,000, has grossed more than $3,000,000, and the money is still rolling in.

Metzger plowed some $500,000 of it back into pay dirt to shoot Therese and Isabelle in France. It has much of the patina of a real movie, even though Actress Gael looks anything but a schoolgirl with her eyeliner and bottle-blonde tartiness. But Essy Persson, the woman in Woman, does manage a plausible interpretation of a troubled teenager, and Metzger has taken enough pain's with his brooding photography to let at least some of the spectators kid themselves into believing that they have come to an art house to see some art.