Maîtresse Review

Olivier (Gérard Depardieu) and Mario (André Rouyer) are petty thieves, posing as encyclopaedia salesmen while casing houses to burgle. On one such visit, they hear from Ariane (Bulle Ogier) that the apartment below hers is empty. So they break in…and find whips, chains, racks and other instruments of torture. Ariane is a dominatrix, and this is where she attends to her clients. Olivier is at once repelled and fascinated, and is soon drawn into Ariane’s world…

Requirements in exploring world cinema include an open mind, a strong stomach and a lack of prudishness. Without all of these, you won’t get very far. Maîtresse is a case in point. It contains scenes of unsimulated sado-masochistic practices. In a couple of sequences, a real dominatrix doubled for Ogier. The masochists we see are real, masked to hide their identities. Some of them brought their own instruments of torture along to the film set. Needless to say, if you are likely to be upset or offended by material like this, then you should give this film a wide berth. If you are able to handle such extreme subject matter, then you will be rewarded by a film that is like few others. For at its heart Maîtresse is a love story between Olivier and Ariane, and the ups and downs of that relationship drive the film’s plot. That’s not to say that Ariane’s profession isn’t important. Schroeder uses it metaphorically, as the film is constantly playing with ideas of “control” in the central couple’s relationship. Olivier and Ariane are always trying to be the one in charge, a tussle that even extends to who will be the one behind the wheel when they are both in a car. Schroeder exploits the contrast between Depardieu’s bulk and Ogier’s petiteness. Olivier is at first conventionally macho and Ariane a small blonde who can’t even fix a dripping tap, but especially in her chamber she is in command from the moment she orders him to urinate on a client’s face. The plot is propelled by Olivier’s misunderstanding of Ariane’s relationships with her clients – which is more motherly than anything else, and certainly not sexual – and with Gautier (Holger Lowenadler), whom he takes to be her pimp. Only at the end of the film is a balance struck.

Nestor Almendros was again the cinematographer, in his third and final dramatic feature for Schroeder. An old building that was shortly to be demolished was hired for the film, and Ariane’s two apartments were constructed there. Almendros makes much of the contrast between the two: upstairs light and airy, illuminated by sunlight. Downstairs, we have black marble walls and metallic fittings, given a sickly hue by fluorescent lighting. Almendros was always proud of the opening sequence, a three-minute shot over which the credits play, showing Depardieu riding through Paris on a motorcycle. He then gets off and enters a café. The camera follows him in and continues filming as he meets Mario.

Needless to say, Maîtresse attracted controversy from the outset. When it was first presented to the BBFC in October 1976, it was rejected outright. The BBFC documentation is available on the disc, and it makes interesting reading. From the outset the BBFC’s examiners (apart from one who comments that “opulent excrescence for all its glitter, remains excrescence”) recognised the film’s worth, its serious and non-exploitative treatment of its subject matter but felt that cuts would reduce the film’s impact. On the other hand, the material went “way beyond what we can certificate for showing in a public cinema”. So Maîtresse was formally rejected. It had a limited run without a certificate under club-membership conditions.

In July 1980, with a change of distributor, the film was resubmitted and this time passed with cuts totalling 4:47, the edits being restricted to three scenes. By that time film was covered by the Obscene Publications Act, which required considering the work as a whole rather than objecting to certain parts lifted out of context. Also, claims the examiner, an “us and them” attitude had changed – “We thought the film of legitimate interest and responsibly treated in 1976; but they had to be protected from it.” Now, resubmitted for DVD release in May 2003, the film is finally commercially available uncut in the UK.

It’s difficult to see, nearly three decades on, how shocking this film must have seemed on its first release. If you read contemporary reviews, you can see comments like the one in F. Maurice Speed’s Film Annual, referring to the S/M scenes as being “all in revolting close-up”. To be fair to Speed, the examiner I quote above from 1980 indicates that the initial shock may have caused a viewer to imagine they saw more than they actually did. In fact, Schroeder films most of the scenes in medium or master shots, presumably to capture anything unexpected as the filming was “live” and unrehearsed, also in an attempt to stand back and avoid sensationalism and judgement. There are few close-ups. Even the scene most likely to be uncomfortable for male viewers, where a man has his scrotum nailed to a board, is filmed with the dominatrix’s hand obscuring the action for the most part. This latter scene also indicates how this film has been surpassed in explicitness over the years. In Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, Flanagan nails his own penis to a board through the shaft itself – and in close-up too! (To be fair, the BBFC weren’t able to pass that scene when they certified Sick.) Many viewers are more likely to be upset by the abattoir scene late on, which features the unsimulated slaughtering of a horse. Maîtresse was undeniably groundbreaking, but as its shock value has receded over time it’s easier to appreciate the film’s virtues unobscured by it.

The BFI’s DVD, encoded for Region 2 only, has an anamorphic transfer in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. The picture is very good, although there is some natural grain especially in darker scenes. This is perhaps inevitable given Almendros’s trademark natural-light (or rather justified-light) approach to cinematography. There is some minor aliasing in places where you might expect it, and some minor flecks and scratches which are presumably due to the state of the original materials.

The soundtrack is in the original French-language mono. As is usual with BFI mono releases, this is single-channel only, so will play through your centre speaker in a digital set-up. It’s an entirely professional job of work, with dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced, though hardly likely to be something to show off your system with.

The remaining extras include an interview with Schroeder, available in text form on the DVD itself and also as a PDF file for those with DVD-ROM content. Interestingly, he regards More as something of a dry run for this film, drug addiction and plentiful nudity being rather easier to finance than sado-masochism! (Also, until he met Depardieu, Schroeder was unable to find an actor willing to take part in such a film as Maîtresse.) Also on the disc is the same text biography of Schroeder that appears on the More DVD, a reproduction of the original poster, and the aforementioned BBFC reports as a PDF file. There are also liner notes inside the DVD case from Philip Kemp.

There aren’t many films like Maîtresse, which may be just as well, as I suspect lesser talents wouldn’t treat the subject as responsibly as Schroeder and his cast and crew do. At least it is now available for adult audiences in the UK to see it and make up their own minds, should they so wish.

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