This review contains spoilers.
Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse (1976) is a film that is extremely hard to classify. Even with the hindsight of almost forty years, its apparent bed fellows all share a stubborn resistance to classification. The collection of films with vaguely similar themes and tendencies to push boundaries of explicitness that came out in the 1970s such as Salò Or 120 Days Of Sodom (1975) and Last Tango In Paris (1972) often seem to be slot next to Maîtresse. This sort of curating is lazy and entirely misjudges the themes and characters of Maîtresse that are far more every day, domestic and tame.
The film is a character study of the relationship between two very different characters; petty thief Olivier (Gerard Depardieu) and secret, professional dominatrix Ariane (Bulle Ogier). When Olivier breaks into the flat below Ariane’s he finds that it is also owned by her and is in fact her “S&M” dungeon where she entertains her clients for money. Becoming embroiled in each other’s worlds, they fall in love and traverse the many challenges that come between them through Ariane’s work and Olivier’s ironic power over her.
What makes the film a far more entertaining experience than the previously mentioned Salò and films of its ilk, is that behind the genuine, strong scenes of sadomasochistic practice, lays a relatively normal love story with humour and tender moments displaced between its oddities and ironies. Even the term sadomasochistic seems inappropriate with Ariane doing only what her clients ask while the power of Olivier over her (which she clearly enjoys and finds releasing) seems straightforward and simple.
The story progresses as Olivier becomes more involved in her work as they pay a visit to a rich chateau where he is allowed to help. This involves various whipping and dominating but it is here where the influence of this rather underground film starts to show. Maîtresse may be a film reserved for underground cinemas and complete cineastes, yet throughout its various graphic scenes, the influence of the film becomes vast. The scene bares more than a fleeting resemblance to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) which seems like a version of Maîtresse only differing in that its characters are negatively affected by the sexual situations they find themselves in rather than positively. The split world of Ariane where she has two rooms of light and dark, two telephones of business and personal (again one white, one black) and a mixture of black and blonde hair depending on her role and mood, instantly recalls the dark underworld of Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986); another film where character’s sexual worlds clash under the most extreme of circumstances.
As the film goes on, the more extreme scenes are reminiscent of large swaths of David Cronenberg’s canon which focus on sexual changes through process and evolution in the same way the character’s relationship evolves in Maîtresse. There’s definitely something of the Max Renn about Olivier, with his relationship undeterred by difference and one that is constantly evolving and adapting to the new world opened up to him by Ariane. The difference here though is that whereas Renn was permanently changed for the worse, the change in this film happens to both characters and is for the better.
Its happy ending is perhaps one of the strangest in film. Having escaped the clutches of Gautier (the man at the centre of a mystery whom Ariane fears having been trapped in the business by him thanks to his excellent pay) the two are driving in the countryside while having sex at the time. This leads them to have, what appears to be quite a severe car cash on orgasming, again heavily pre-empting Cronenberg for his future adaptation of J.G Ballard’s Crash (1996). However, in spite of their injuries, they laugh and walk off from the smashed up car, aware that not only are they leaving behind the wreckage of the vehicle but leaving behind their old and complicated lives for something far more simple and enjoyable.
The release has an excellent transfer and is uncut. However, looking at its detailed extras, it is interesting to note what actually was cut from the 1980 release. Of course the notorious scene of a man genuinely having his penis nailed to a board with hammer and pins (for his pleasure of course) was a given, however it seems odd that when the BBFC were in the height of their outraged phase, they deemed a woman’s vulva to be more offensive than a horse genuinely being slaughtered in an abattoir. It is details like these that make the release so interesting and the half an hour documentary with Dr Patricia MacCormack and Edward Lamberti is full of such details and analysis (as is the usual booklet).
There’s no denying that Maîtresse isn’t a film for everyone. Its genuine, extreme scenes of “S&M” will be enough to put off the prude, perhaps judgemental viewer. However, Schroeder’s film is not only a subversive love story light years ahead of its time, it is a defining influence on some of the great cinema of the 1980s and 1990s; questioning, provocative and fascinating.
The Duel-Format edition of Maîtresse is out on the 5th of November,