Director : Barbet Schroeder
Screenplay : Barbet Schroeder & Paul Voujargol
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1976
Stars : Gérard Depardieu (Olivier), Bulle Ogier (Ariane), André Rouyer (Mario), Nathalie Keryan (Lucienne), Roland Bertin (Man in Cage), Tony Taffin (Emile), Holger Löwenadler (Gautier), Anny Bartanovski (Secretary)
When the two men break into the apartment, they think they are entering the abode of an elderly woman who is on vacation in the south of France. Instead, they find a dungeon filled with all kinds of kinky sexual devices, from leather masks and stiletto heels, to whips and chains, to a full-sized crucifix. As one the men ventures deeper in the recesses of the apartment, he comes across a frightening-looking dental chair and a table of instruments that look like they were liberated from a Nazi medical experiment laboratory. In that same room, he finds a naked man bound and gagged inside a cage.
Just when they are about to escape, they are pinned in a corner by a ferocious Doberman. Then, there’s a whirring sound, and a metallic retractable staircase lowers from the ceiling, from which emerges a stern, dark-haired woman dressed in black leather. This is a surprising development, indeed, but it’s even more surprising when the two men realize they’ve met this woman before, when she was a petite, nonthreatening blonde who asked them to help her stop her bathtub from overflowing. And so begins Barbet Schroeder’s fascinating, but flawed Maîtresse.
The woman, Ariane (Bulle Ogier), leads a double life symbolized by the starkly opposing halves of her two-floor apartment. Above, she looks and lives like a normal ,everyday young woman who resides in a chic Parisian flat. When she ventures downstairs, though, she transforms into a dominatrix to whom wealthy men pay large sums of money to dominate, humiliate, and torture them. Schroeder doesn’t shy away from the details of her shocking profession, but at the same time, he doesn’t dwell inordinately on the details. Rather, he strikes a nearly perfect balance between a sense of jaw-dropping voyeurism in seeing masochistic men willingly submit themselves to all forms of domination (from being caged, to being treated like horse, to one man who has his genitals nailed to a piece of wood) and the detached stance of an outside observer looking in on a subculture (not surprisingly, Schroeder is well-known as a documentary filmmaker). In this sense, Maîtresse is a great success.
However, that is not what the film is really about. Surprisingly enough, it is a romance, and if the film is about anything, it’s about the difficult nature of romantic love. If it weren’t played so straight, one could almost look at the film as a sly parody of the romantic entanglements involving balancing a relationship with a career.
Ariane begins an affair with Olivier (Gérard Depardieu in one of his first film roles), one of the men who breaks into her apartment. Olivier is a young man about whom we know very little. He has recently arrived in Paris and has a job lined up as a gardener, but he quickly subsumes himself into his affair with Ariane and moves in with her. He obviously knows her profession, but he seems willing to overlook it (this plays as an exaggeration of the realities of all new romances in which we are able to blind ourselves to our lover’s imperfections).
However, as these things go, the divide between the “upstairs” Ariane and the “downstairs” Ariane does not hold. It’s a dichotomy that cannot withstand the pressures of romance. Olivier is curious about what goes on in the apartment below, and he begins to follow Ariane down there and take part in the activities. At the same time, this begins to taint their relationship upstairs, as Olivier begins to take on a masochistic quality that is emotional, rather than physical. More than anything, he wants to know all the sordid details of Ariane’s business affairs, particularly the identity of someone named Gautier, who may be Ariane’s business partner, may be her pimp, or may be her lover (or some combination thereof). The power imbalance between them becomes the film’s structuring equation, as Olivier and Ariane struggle in various ways to reconcile their conventional romance with her unconventional profession.
The problem here is that the romance between Olivier and Ariane never feels particularly real. The manner in which they meet and fall in love doesn’t ring true, particularly because it seems that Olivier is more turned on by the dark-haired woman downstairs than the blonde upstairs (he doesn’t ask her out when he first meets her, but only after he has seen what she does). Thus, when he begins to infiltrate the downstairs world, it doesn’t seem like a transgression; it’s what he’s wanted to do all along. This means that the divide between him and Ariane is not so immense after all, which saps some of the power from the blurring of the two worlds because they were blurred to begin with.
Still, Schroeder has crafted an oddly compelling film, one that never bores and always intrigues, even when it relies on obvious metaphors like a horse slaughterhouse being hidden just off a beautiful Parisian boulevard. The performances by Depardieu and Ogier are both excellent and come close to transcending the narrative flaws in their relationship. More than anything, though, Maîtresse speaks to the inherent contradictions in society and in human behavior by breaking down such conventional dichotomies as love and hate, passion and pain. All of them are interconnected, the film argues, and true happiness lies in our ability to find the balance among them. The masochists in Ariane’s dungeon are really no better than hopeless idealists who turn romantic love into some kind of impossible dream state.
|Maîtresse Director-Approved Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||French Dolby 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Video interview with Barbet Schroeder |
Essay by Elliott Stein
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 3, 2004|
|The new anamorphic widescreen transfer for this disc was taken from a 35mm interpositive and supervised by director Barbet Schroeder. The transfer is solid throughout, with good color saturation and realistic flesh tones. The image does appear to be a bit soft at times, but this is likely the inherent look of the film. Dark scenes, of which there are quite a few, are well-rendered. The MTI Digital Restoration System was used to clean up the image, resulting in a picture that is almost entirely free of any visual artifacts. It should also go without saying, of course, that this is the full, uncut version of Maîtresse, which has circulated over the years in various shortened forms (mostly to remove the more graphic scenes of S&M).|
|The monaural soundtrack, taken from a 35mm magnetic soundtrack and digitally restored, is more than adequate.|
|The only supplement included on the disc is a new, 15-minute video interview recorded with Barbet Schroeder in 2002. In the interview, he candidly discusses the film’s production (the use of a real dominatrix and her willing slaves!), as well as his take on the film’s message.|
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick