Pain, it is said, has a duplicitous nature all its own. On one side is obvious suffering, the aches of injury or physical wounding. On the other side is its emotional nature, the self-inflicted torment and hurt we go through because of love, or grief, or selfishness. Sometimes, we cannot stop the sting. It beats deep into our heart and soul like acid spikes driven into the flesh. Other times, we tolerate the torture, putting up with the sadness and soreness for the sake of some internal nobility. A poet once said that all life is pain and he was probably right. From the loss of a loved one to the stubbed toe on the way to the toilet in the middle of the night, we all deal with moments, either grand or over-exaggerated, of anguish. It is as much a part of existence as breathing. There are even those who manage to mix their sense of sex and pleasure into the well of sorrow, twisting the tainted emotion into some manner of sensual power struggle. For masochists and their masters, the dynamic between suffering and salvation, oppression and orgasm, is smeared and veiled. In this unusual fetish society, roles are reversed, envelopes are pushed (and then destroyed), and anonymity is maintained for the sake of normalcy. In some ways, we can see the punished as wanting to pay for something: their sins, their desires, their success. But what about the punishers? What do they achieve? Are they really interested in interpersonal prominence over another, or are they merely unleashing a Pandora's pandering box of unspent seedy needs? Acclaimed French/Iranian director Barbet Schroeder, better known for his later Hollywood hits (Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female) thrusts us into this unspoken world with his 1973 erotic drama Maîtresse (new to DVD from the Criterion Collection). Oddly enough, the answers to those previous questions may be more startling than the sexual antics involved.
Facts of the Case
When Olivier meets up with his old friend, Mario (after some time apart), the pals immediately fall back into their previous pastime: crime. They pose as encyclopedia salesmen and then case the homes they are allowed into for potential goodies. While offering to help a young woman with a plumbing problem, they overhear that the apartment below her is empty. When they break in, they discover a dungeon-like setting, with whips and chains and a strange, starving man locked in a cage. Before they can make their escape, a ladder descends from the ceiling and a dominatrix enters the realm. It is Ariane, the young woman that the men had just helped in the apartment above. She owns both flats, living in one and "working" in the other. She asks Olivier to help her with a particular client request. He agrees. Thus, begins a bizarre relationship between the two.
Olivier is in love. He wants to wine and dine Ariane. She, too, has feelings for the thief, but there always appear to be barriers to her affections. She has a young son whom she is always concerned about. And a man named Gautier is constantly phoning her on a private line, making obtuse demands and driving Ariane mad. After a while, all this drama, sexual, social, and personal, begins to take its toll on the couple. Olivier wants to confront Gautier, who he is convinced is Ariane's pimp. But she will not let her lover go near him. The reasons are never made known, and this confuses and provokes Olivier. Issues of love, devotion, family, lifestyle, and acceptance are all questioned. Indeed, once everything is settled, it becomes difficult to figure out who is the slave and who is the Maîtresse (or Mistress).
Let's face it: we all live double lives. Nobody knows who we really are, not even our closest confidants or companions. No matter how open or obvious, revealing or responsive we are, there is a tiny file folder buried deep in our subconscious that we never let anyone see. It's what makes us individuals, what gives us our spark of personality and our source of fear. But it is also what gets us into trouble, leads us astray and speaks to us in the darkest hours of our most miserable experiences. It challenges and cheats us, disregards and supports us. The notion of being completely open and honest is, frankly, such a foreign state to most humans that if we feel we've divulged most of our hidden agendas we believe that's good enough. We feel satisfied and assured. As long as we carry our private pain or pleasure, we are one with our own essence. But what about those people who make the leap from imaginary to pragmatic fantasy. What of those individuals who listen to their inner children and respond with a "let's do it now" nod? For these frightened explorers, the true meaning of a double existence is Hell. Maybe they are closeted homosexuals or secret cross-dressers. Perhaps they believe themselves fetish fiends or public exhibitionists. The road to perversion is cast with such anonymous faces, individuals incognito. It's their diametric dilemma: how to balance the social norm with the communal outcast. The result, sadly, is that they tend to become human ghosts, unstuck in existence. Such is the wicked world of the dominatrix and the dominated. Such is the theme for Maîtresse.
Duality and the realms of existence are key core concepts in this early 70s French classic of the erotic. Director Barbet Schroeder is out to explore all facets of life, from the accepted to the profane. Set in a literal world of darkness descending and lightness above, Schroeder wants to challenge taboos, break down barriers, and garner understanding. But he is not championing alternative lifestyles. No, they are merely the tools for his storytelling trade. In this film filled with degrading sexual kinks and humiliating physical torture, acceptance—learning to live within the dominions of your entire person—is the ultimate goal. Our heroine, Ariane, lives a dual existence, each controlled by outside forces—social, physical, emotional, and financial. She is proud of her unusual occupation and appears to make no bones about who knows it. Yet in reality she is the most insular and closed off of characters, more trapped in her domination domain than the clients she serves. In the world below her apartment, she is a menacing madam, dishing out the discipline in disgusting fashion. Above the "dungeon," in her apartment universe, Ariane is a distraught and unhappy woman, unable to accept herself. Truth be told, both worlds wear her down. She longs for her only child (secreted away with his father) and has difficulty connecting with the people around her (that is, when they are not tied to the rack or getting pissed on). For Ariane, life has become a series of appointments and commands, desires and costumes. Her underworld has consumed her and she is struggling to get back on solid, non-sordid ground.
Enter into her life the oafish, open book Olivier, a free spirit as honest hood. Unlike his friend Mario, who is always looking for another scheme and hides his criminality behind a cocky stride of guilt, Olivier is straightforward. He steals. He has made his living from stealing and doesn't care what people think about his stealing ways. He is comfortable with who he is. He is not proud of his criminality, but he also doesn't make excuses for it. In essence, he's a "love me, love my dog" kind of guy, with the pooch in question being larceny and theft. When he connects with Ariane, he does so openly and affectionately. He wants to be part of her and is willing to take the life she leads along with it. At first, he enjoys the wickedness of it, all the illicit thrill of deviant behavior. But as time goes by, he starts to realize that he is the only one actually "giving" in the relationship. Ariane is still locked in her double life and all the sexual and interpersonal politics that come with it. Olivier is so desperate for Ariane that he is willing to do almost anything to connect with her. He tries joining in on the "action" in the dwelling below. He indulges her demands and acts like he enjoys them. He even conceives of a way to break her from her perceived flesh broker, the mysterious Gautier: he will pimp for her. But all of these are dead ends for the hopelessly romantic and candid paramour. He cannot live in Ariane's dark world and she cannot exist in his kingdom of kindness and light.
The dominion of bondage and discipline is a world based in power and shame, and Schroeder uses the setting brilliantly to delineate the battle of the sexes and struggles between his lovers. The relationship between the couple is oddly reminiscent of the one between the madam and her clients. Olivier willingly submits to Ariane's whims and demands even if, in his case, they are more suggestive than sadistic. It empowers her to lead this primal man around (and on). But shame is the comeuppance for Olivier, a chance to give back to the black queen of pain the same kind of personal degradation that she doles out for a price. Strangely, his shame is built of love, a desire to have her succumb to his romantic yearnings. When she doesn't, he plays hurt and defeated, or angry and jealous. He doesn't want Ariane to love him on command. He wants her to care for him as an extension of who she really is. Problem is, Ariane no longer knows. She confesses that she is having trouble pleasing her clientele, their ever more bizarre demands taking their toll. She also hints at enjoying the more vicious acts (a scene of genital torment is most disturbing and disgusting) that she commits. Ariane is definitely caught between the two worlds: the world of lifestyle, with its share of power and shame, and the real world, with its inherent dishonor and fleeting authority. It is easy to see why she has chosen the more degenerate life. There, the pain is controlled and the shame is hidden. Outside, both become scarlet letters of heartache.
Control is also an important facet in Maîtresse, from its B&D lifestyle as metaphor to the core conceit of loving being a source of shame. Ariane and Olivier have a relationship based on a delicate balance of power. When it goes out of whack, they both become unhappy and distraught. Olivier's pushing causes Ariane to retreat, retrench, and fight back. His loss of authority turns him thuggish and frustrated. Both of these individuals have outside forces that manipulate them, exploiting their weaknesses and their personalities for the sake of their own gains. Olivier has Mario, a fellow felonious fool who smells a good scam when he stumbles upon it. He approaches Olivier, weeks after his affair with Ariane has begun, to see if he would be interested in parlaying his arrangement into a little fraud and blackmail. He imagines many important people who wouldn't want their weird sexual proclivity announced and would be willing to pay dearly to keep it quiet. For Ariane, the threatening force is Gautier. His hold over her is far deeper (to disclose it would be to ruin one of the film's finest reveals) and he uses it constantly. Olivier, for his part, rejects Mario's plans outright. He literally tosses him out of his life. Ariane, on the other hand, cannot ignore Gautier's stipulations. She gives in every time, tossing a larger and larger wrench into her and Olivier's relationship. In the end, the puzzle pieces all make sense and lead to a splendid payoff. But before we completely justify the use of it, we have to understand that the philosophical core of Maîtresse is all but bathed in control and acquiescence.
As a film, Maîtresse is dense and deceptive, funny and occasionally very frightening. It presents a strong look at the underground world of bondage and discipline and its depictions of both are rough, revealing, and raw. It's hard to say if Maîtresse is/was ahead of its time, or well past its prime. What was shocking in 1973 is now fodder for skits on Saturday Night Live. Fetish gear, complete with studs and spankings, is often incorporated into haute couture and prime time television. But then again, the acts of sexual depravity and humiliation filmed here are very intense. One sequence, where a masked man has his penis "drawn and quartered" (for lack of a better description) is hideous, and when Olivier spanks a nubile lass among a group of deviant houseguests, real welts swell up along her reddish-purple posterior. There is no denying director Schroeder's ability with a camera and narrative. Maîtresse never feels forced, never beating you over the head with its portrayals of perversion. One of the genius symbols of the film is the stairway to the apartment below. As it unfolds, Schroeder always makes it a focus of the shot, to signify that once again the umbilical between reality and fantasy has been re-opened (and the electrified emotions emanating from both are starting to flow). Schroeder enjoys the issue of duality and composes his frame to highlight it. Ariane is seen with a neon halo (actually a distant room light) over her head. In another scene, she is viewed descending the staircase and disappearing down into her dungeon. As the camera holds on the hole, Ariane is literally enveloped by the evil opening. Olivier's openness is also part of Schroeder's vision: our hero always rides a scooter (never closing himself off from the world) and appears to be permanently shirtless and splayed.
Schroeder wants his imagery to expose his purpose. Indeed, what's below the surface is very important to Maîtresse. When Olivier indulges in his favorite cut of meat (in this case, a French delicacy of horsemeat steaks) we are taken to the rundown gothic slaughterhouse to witness the animal go under the bolt gun. As he does with the sex in the film, Schroeder does not shy away from the violence. Olivier watches as the animal's throat is cut and a torrent of blood pours from the wound. A few minutes later he is in the ancient, quaint butcher's shop selecting his food. Cut to the next scene, and he is munching away with relish and delight. Like those simplistic explanations about the circle of life, what Schroeder accomplishes here is the notion of being tainted. Olivier believes himself to be humble and true, but he is actually being influenced—tainted, soiled—by everything around him: his lover and her work, the man who torments her, even the dinner he is enjoying. Ariane likes to think of herself as free from the effects of her career (even when she's lying on the floor in a fetal position, unable to breathe from the thought of what she is doing). Like the leather she wears, the wigs and the war paint make-up, Ariane, too, is stained. Maybe not for life, but at least for now. And all of this is visual fodder for Schroeder's clever camera. Be it a head-on shot of an actor as he or she speaks or a complicated mirror sequence, he wants the audience to witness all worlds intersecting and influencing his sex-crossed lovers. And he succeeds exceptionally well.
Of course, Schroeder could get away with none of this without actors willing to risk it all for the sake of art. In Bulle Ogier (a favorite leading lady of his), he has a brave actress willing to take on many of the more disturbing scenes and still maintain a sense of not being exploited. Her performance as Ariane here, layered with command and caution, tenderness and weakness, is wonderful. But it is a young Gerard Depardieu who announces his future star power (this was his first "contracted" role, though due to delays, it ended up being his fourth or fifth film) in a spectacular way in the role of the hopeless romantic Olivier. What he does here is so laid back, so effortless and honest that it's hard to call it acting. Maybe it's just "being." Depardieu is so natural and magnetic that he draws you into the film from the first frame. We instantly recognize his character, sympathize with his broad smile and want to follow his exploits. Along with a great cast of professionals (and some amateurs from the sex world to lend their expertise), this is a film filled with exceptional acting moments. And that is hard to say for a foreign motion picture set in the seedy world of fetish sex and filled with brazen examples of said. But there is more to Maîtresse than its prurient interests. This is a provocative, but ultimately uplifting, tale about overcoming insecurities, understanding human connections, and accepting individual behavior. You see, at some point in our lives, we have to give up the secrets and lies. We have to pick out our true nature from the dual domains we dwell in. Maîtresse tells us how important it is to choose the right one—and how having someone along to lead the way lessens the pain of relocation.
A film like Maîtresse is a perfect example of what Criterion does so well. They take a relatively obscure work with some manner of critical acclaim or scholarly support and create a spectacular, special package around it. In the case of this film, it manages to make this obscure 1973 French film about an unusual subject into something incredibly desirable. On the visual end, Maîtresse is gorgeous, filled with rich detailed colors and sharp, defined details. There is hardly a hint of print damage (Criterion struck a new one from original elements), and the balance of darkness and light is excellent. Even when we are inside the dim dungeon at Ariane's, we still see things clearly. Sonically, there is not much that can be done with Dolby Digital Mono, but Maîtresse still manages to sound warm and natural. Characters are heard easily and conversations and dialogue are never obscured. The subtitles (this is a French film, after all) are vibrant and well paced. Anyone with a working knowledge of French (or any other romance language) will hear things that are lost in the translation, but overall, the message of this movie comes across very understandably.
As for extras, they are minimal but very good indeed. There is a 16-minute interview with director Schroeder that acts like a miniature commentary. Looking much older than his years, he pours out a wealth of knowledge in a very short time. He discusses his inspiration for the film—to wit, a conversation with a dominatrix friend of his and how, years later, he is still a champion for the fetish crowd. He discusses how the entire film was shot in a soon-to-be-destroyed set of apartments, thus allowing them to create the twin domains of Ariane and Olivier without having to resort to studio sets or camera tricks. He reveals that the persons involved in the penis-"needling"/genital-torture scene are not who we think they are (the truth is well worth discovering), and he points out the numerous B&D/S&M "professionals" among his cast and crew that helped bring this weird world to life. During his talk, there are lots of photos and images from the making of the film and it is interesting to see everyone as they work in some of the more "unusual" settings. While it would have been nice to have this scholarly filmmaker sit down to discuss his film, in its entirety, on an alternative narrative audio track, this is still a fine informational feature for the DVD. The other engaging extra is the excellent article by Village Voice critic Elliot Stein. Included as part of the insert for the film, Mr. Stein gives nice critical and analytic suggestions about themes and undercurrents in the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is less of a warning and more of an observational criticism. As far as we've come as a global society, accepting all manner of lifestyle and cultural changes, it's hard to imagine that we have advanced enough to embrace the sex scenes in Maîtresse as "normal." Imagine an American movie in which our romantic leads break the dating ritual every once in a while to engage in urine and feces games. While not as strong, sordid, or suggestive as that (there is no sensuality in the dungeon sequences), the fetish material in this movie is very frank and incredibly disturbing, even by 2004 standards. Most of what is seen in the film is "real": bondage, discipline, and masochistic acts performed by actual participants in that world. Striving for authenticity for his film and his performers, Schroeder has made the particular decision to not fake or force the deviant behavior. And that means that those who would, perhaps, come to this movie based on Gerard Depardieu or the themes it discusses need to understand: you will most definitely find things here to insult and disturb you. This is "alternative" sexual behavior at its most primal and basic. If you are not prepared for it, those scenes (along with the horse killing in the abattoir) will soil the overall film experience for you. Maîtresse and its message deserve better than that.
In a world already drowning in it, the notion that people would employ pain as a means of sexual release and pleasure is almost unfathomable. Under the standard definition of sex, individuals usually mix up romance, love, biology, procreation, and other esoteric, moralistic views to churn the carnal waters. Few want to face the obvious fact that physical contact between two consenting adults is based almost solely on pleasure and not just following some stupid life script. So to torment that ancient standard even further by making suffering, physical, emotional, or both, the chief means of achieving joy is contradictory. But thus is the universe of someone living such a double life. They are trapped between what society says is right and what their nerve endings or emotional trauma says they need. Perhaps persons employ pain for their delight simply because, in an existence of complete randomness, they can at least control the amount and the endurance. For Ariane and Olivier, control is everything. If they can find a way to make both of their desires work, reaching a kind of truce between her tortures and his tenderness, her duplicity and his candor, there may be a chance for them to live happily ever after. Bliss in the realm of a dominatrix seems incongruous. But Maîtresse tells us that this is all that anyone, even those who desire a little torture with their titillation, is looking for. It may be hard to find, but it is what, in essence, everyone wants.
Maîtresse is found not guilty by this court and is free to go. Criterion, as usual, offers a wonderful transfer, and some engaging trappings, to round off this disc and are acquitted as well.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Director Barbet Schroeder
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