(Barbet Schroeder, France, 1976)


Maîtresse (Mistress, as in bondage mistress) is a real curiosity item. It was made in 1976 by Barbet Schroeder, who later went on to a career in America with films including Reversal of Fortune (1990) and Single White Female (1992). In the '60s and '70s, Schroeder was famous for his movies about counter-cultural lifestyles involving drugs, mysticism and sexual experimentation. Maîtresse is his movie about sado-masochism – but its S&M is a strictly formal, organised affair.

Bulle Ogier plays Ariane, a mistress with a very sophisticated set-up. In her upstairs flat, she leads her normal, daily life. She has a maid, a child and a husband we don't really see, and a formidable dog. Downstairs – which she gets to via a sci-fi looking staircase hidden in the centre of her lounge-room – is Ariane's workspace, with every kind of bondage implement known to man or woman. This is where mainly male clientele come to be hung up, beaten, stretched on a rack, locked in cages.

Part of the scandal of this movie, in its day, was its documentary element. The S&M scenes are stage-managed by an actual mistress, the person who inspired Schroeder to make the film in the first place. Some of the clients are real too – they actually paid for the privilege of having their fantasies enacted and exhibited on screen, and that's partly how Schroeder financed the movie. In a notorious and especially confronting scene, one masked gentleman gets his genitals expertly nailed to a piece of wood by the mistress; this is a sight I won't soon forget.

Maîtresse is about the relationship between Ariane and a young man who one night clumsily breaks into her apartment. He's Olivier, played by a thin, wiry Gérard Depardieu, and it's a delight to watch him. This character is like something out of a Jean Genet novel. We first meet Olivier scooting around the streets of Paris on his little motorbike. He has no past, no ties, no family. He has a casually bisexual air about him.

When Olivier stumbles upon Ariane, he is instantly attracted to her. His curiosity drives him back into the downstairs pad, where she, in full mistress regalia, is riding on the back of a masked client. Rather than sending this hulking interloper away, Ariane gets Olivier to help out by urinating in the client's face. Then they kiss, right in the middle of this amazing tableau: it's a match made in heaven.

As should be clear already, there is a certain kind of extreme, bizarre comedy at the heart of this movie. The film begins by setting up clearly delineated zones in Ariane's life – upstairs and downstairs, kinkiness and normality. She has two phones of her different colours by her bed, for instance, one for personal calls, the other for work calls. This division is the system by which her daily life functions. What Schroeder is interested in is the gradual collapse of this system, the blurring of all these zones and categories.

Olivier catalyses a change in Ariane's life in a very dramatic fashion. He behaves like a bull in a china shop, charging downstairs and upsetting all the very delicate rules of the sadomasochistic contract. In a quite frightening scene, he upsets a man who is in a cage, tearing off his mask, and dishing out violence to him in a completely unstructured, unformalised way. This client may be a masochist, but what Olivier does to him amounts to abuse, and he cowers in his cage accordingly like a frightened animal.

In another, similar scene, Olivier mortifies the mistress by seizing her, carrying her downstairs against her will, and making love to her in front of a perplexed and pained bunch of cross-dressers in the middle of their carefully stage-managed fantasy scenario. No wonder the mistress suffers a massive and unexpected anxiety attack in the middle of one of her sessions – something I have never seen so powerfully rendered on screen.

This is the way the mistress' cookie crumbles, in a fairly cataclysmic chain of events. But Schroeder stresses that, even before all this drama, the systems and contracts we live by are already pretty strange and precarious constructions. Normality and kinkiness are already mixed up in subtle and complex ways. Ariane's maid, for instance, is a wonderful recurring figure in the film. We see her tidying up and answering phones upstairs, and then just as calmly fill a bowl with dog food to take to the guy in the cage downstairs.

Even the highly formalised world of S&M cracks apart at unexpected moments. There is a striking moment when the mistress is working on a client who is hanging up by his neck. Suddenly this guy gets his hands free and tries to strangle her. She instantly strikes back with an almighty wallop. Schroeder immediately cuts to a shot of the mistress ushering this guy, now dressed in his workaday suit, out the door. "Don't come back, I can't help people like you", she hisses, and he whimpers: "I'm sorry".

Schroeder is a fascinating director. It was the British critic Raymond Durgnat who first noticed the deep theme uniting all of Schroeder's work, whether documentary or fiction: his very open-minded interest in defining humanity, or people's odd behaviour, in a way that admits that they are not only civilised human beings but also, simultaneously, monsters and animals – creatures perpetually locked up in strange delusions and projections that they themselves only dimly understand.

The characters in Schroeder's films are weird and opaque – stimulated by booze or drugs, as in Barfly (1987) and Reversal of Fortune, driven by obscure erotic and violent fantasies, as in Maîtresse or Single White Female. Schroeder has made documentaries about Idi Amin – a human being who was a mad monster – and about Koko, the famous 'talking gorilla' who developed many human traits.

In a similar way, Ogier and Depardieu in Maîtresse incarnate characters who are all at once beasts, libertines and nuts – crossing the entire terrain from impulsive play to sophisticated perversity. One of the best moments in the film is a simple, startling cut from a close-up of the mistress' mad-eyed, barking, murderous dog to a close-up of Ariane herself – just as stiff, glacial, tense and alert.

I don't love this movie, although I enjoy aspects of it. As a film, rather than as a case or a controversy, it has problems. It is constructed very much in the Nouvelle Vague manner – very freely and loosely, with an extremely slight and attenuated plot line. It's perhaps too attenuated, especially all the vague stuff about Ariane's kid, and her mysterious rich patron.

There's a sense, as the film unfolds, that Schroeder is just playing out a long string of variations on a central theme – there are exceptional scenes, but they never really come together in an organic, coherent or logical way. At the end it launches into a crazy, utopian sex fantasy, suddenly and disconcertingly transforming the film into one of those glossy, soft-core, Euro-numbers of the '70s like the Emmanuelle movies or Serge Gainsbourg's forays into cinema.

All the same, I was quite riveted to the screen from one unpredictable scene to the next. The best thing about Maîtresse is the way it confronts you, in a calm, matter-of-fact and comic way with some of the extremes and possibilities of human behaviour. I think this is one of the most profound experiences that can be had at the cinema – this confrontation with otherness, with other people's very different ways of life. It's a confrontation that can be stark and upsetting, but also somehow reassuring and liberating. This is why I think I'll always want to defend some films with extreme sexual or violent content, from cheap horror movies to Pasolini's Salò (1975), which offer this kind of limit-experience.

MORE Schroeder: Before and After, Desperate Measures

© Adrian Martin March 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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