Director: Barbet Schroeder
Script: Barbet Schroeder, Paul Voujargol
Cast: Gérard Depardieu, Bulle Ogier, André Rouyer, Holger Lowenadler
Running time: 113 minutes
“…a totally bizarre and depressing experience to witness” and “opulent excrescence” were just two of the descriptions given by one BBFC examiner after viewing Barbet Schroder’s ground breaking film in 1976, when it was first submitted to obtain a theatrical certificate.
Opinions may have softened over the years towards Schroeder’s controversial film featuring, as it does, graphic scenes of torture and fetishism, but it still has the power to shock and disturb – especially a real–life snap shot of a horse being killed and drained of its blood in an abattoir.
Maîtresse is basically a love story where, rather unusually, it’s the boy who wants the girl to tone down her sexual desires and antics. When petty thief Olivier (played by a very young looking Depardieu) breaks into what he thinks is a mature lady’s apartment, while she’s on holiday, he discovers the bizarre world of leather and latex-clad dominatrix Ariane (Bulle Ogier) who, rather than call the police, gets him to urinate in the face of one of her clients – as you do! Well, its love at first splash as Olivier falls for this unique femme fatale and he invites her out for dinner, which incidentally she has to pay for, as he’s skint! They hit it off, she invites him to live with her, and it’s not long before our rather wet behind the ears thief is fighting the little green monster inside himself. Increasingly jealous of her clients and a mysterious benefactor, Mr Gaultier (Lowenadler), who seems to have a hold on her, it’s not long before the sparks fly as anger and passion rise to the surface with serious consequences for all involved.
This is a film that pulls the viewer into its hidden underworld where high heels are worn to be licked and belts are never used to hold up a person’s trousers! Indeed one of the most effective scenes in the film comes early on when Olivier and his mate Mario (Rouyer) first break into Ariane’s split level apartment, where their flickering torches slowly reveal the tools of her nefarious trade.
The film is nicely shot and the BFI's high definition transfer makes it look like it was shot yesterday, not in the mid seventies. The acting is excellent throughout although some dialogue exchanges seem a little forced and a tad theatrical. The music by Carlos D’Alessio is very subtle but effective and the costumes and set design are excellent.
This isn’t a film for the squeamish or easily upset, but it is an interesting alternative love story and should be praised for its adept handling of what is often construed as a rather peculiar sexual fetish. I have to say most it didn’t really faze me, although I found the genital piercings and animal cruelty hard to stomach. Some of it seemed a little unnecessary to me, although I’ve sat through more extreme stuff, namely Schramm (1994) by Jôrge Buttgereit, which features even more extreme genital mutilation; Mmm, lovely!
Maîtresse is actually quite funny at times and can often been viewed as a culture clash rom-comedy, but with less emphasis on the comedy and more on the nature of power within a relationship. The film's main characters split life kind of reminded me a little of the set-up for Wes Craven’s under rated The People Under The Stairs (1991), which also features a distinct ‘upstairs/downstairs split’. Oh, and I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but see if you can spot the reference to The Saint TV series, where a halo effect is presented a couple of times over the main protagonists.
I’m not sure who this film is really aimed at – it’s not a particularly satisfying love story, it doesn't really work in the titillation department and I’m sure it wouldn’t really be appreciated all that much by real fetishists. However, as a bit of significant transgressive cinema history it's definitely worth a look.
Reviewer: Justin Richards
The BFI have recently released Maîtresse on DVD as a high definition transfer from the original 35mm interpositive. The film is accompanied by a talking heads documentary called Domestic Masochism (28 mins), which features film scholar Dr Patricia MacCormack and Edward Lamberti, from the BBFC, discussing the film’s sexual politics and the controversy the film has courted over the years. There are also trailers for some of Barbet Schroeder’s other films including More, The Valley and Mistress, of course. Plus there’s a very informative booklet put together by the BFI about the film, which features some interesting essays on the film itself, its director and actors and, most interesting to me, it’s reception at the BBFC over the years. A good all round package, which is typical of the BFI’s commendable high standards.