My review for the 1983 Tinto Brass release The Key is up over at Screenjabber.
Maitresse is quite possibly one of the sexiest films I have ever seen. Not because of its explicitness, the actors or the themes it explores, but rather because of its natural tone and lack of judgment. Directed by the French Barbet Schroeder, Maitresse tells the tale of a chance encounter between ‘normal’ man and small time crook Olivier (Gerard Depardieu) and dominatrix Ariane (Bulle Ogier). Olivier is both smitten with Ariane and interested in the sadomasochistic world in which she operates and is eventually asked to move in and live with her as her lover. Schroeder’s aim was to create a vision that showed a non-judgemental exploration of this side to human sexuality and so unravels the story of the pair who struggle to come to terms with the power roles evident in their blossoming relationship.
The key to this developement is casting. When we first meet Olivier, he is a cocky motorcycle driver in need of a quick buck and a floor to sleep on. A big guy, he looks like he can definitely hold is own against anyone, especially Ariane, who on first appearance looks like a delicate waif in serious need of some clichéd gender role help. He’s trying to con her out of money with door to door sales and her bathroom taps wont stop running. Invited into her flat to help her sort out her plumbing, she lets slip that her neighbour below is away, and so Olivier and his accompanying friend break in to the empty flat hoping to find something valuable. Concealed in the darkness like a dirty secret, what they do find is of no value to them but to a dominatrix and her clientage is utterly priceless; heels, whips, masks, latex suits, bottles, dummies, gloves and costume to name but a few things.
It is at this point that we get to finally meet the real Ariane. After discovering a man tied up in the flat, neon lights flood the darkness and a futuristic staircase descends from the ceiling. Slowly walking down comes Ariane whose composure is the complete opposite of the woman we were introduced to a scene earlier. No longer ‘helpless’ and rushed, she is cool and composed, made up in a stunning outfit (the costumes were designed by Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld) with pristine hair and makeup and, most importantly, both confident and in complete control. Unsurprised to see Olivier and his friend, she emasculates them by handcuffing them to a radiator making them dependent on her and rendering their earlier attempt at ‘rescuing’ her totally redundant. After a few moments, she persuades Olivier to work for her knowing he needs the money and after an encounter between them and a client of hers, his interest in Ariane blossoms.
After spending the night together in a moment that seems both honest and rather sweet, their relationship begins and so do Olivier’s attempts to change the power balance between the pair. Ogier plays Ariane beautifully, both complex in character and yet quite simply portrayed on-screen. Ariane likes her job and knows what she is doing. She certainly has no will to want to give it up and has managed to effectively control everything around her; her telephone lines, what her venus fly traps eat on which days, when she stops and starts work, what she and Olivier do, what Olivier wears… When she is made up and in control, no one can stand in her way and yet she manages to afford herself moments of vulnerability and worry, especially when it comes to the welfare and wellbeing of her young son. She seems to genuinely care for Olivier, and yet he struggles to see her for who she really is. Over time he trys to change her so that he is in some way in control of her and she submissive to him. Yet no matter how much time he puts into this, he is unable to see that the power roles are very defined between the two of them and have been since day one. She will always be in control of him, and he will always need her, whether it be for love, money, a play to stay, attention, food, work or sex. Even at the end of the film where she leaves him and deliberately leaves no new address or number for her, he goes on a search of possible places she could be until he finds her. Just like a client of hers, he could not let go of her, even though it is clear that he is out of his depth when it comes to Ariane and her ‘world’ (he struggles to understand her or her clients motivation, their desire, what she gets out of her job, where role games begin and end, and where he sits amongst the other men in her life), ultimately ending up resenting it where he once held captivated interest.
As a director, Schroeder wanted his exploration into the sadomasochistic world of domination to be as real and as natural as possible and enlisted the services of a real Parisian dominatrix who helped to supply on-set advice and also some of her own equipment. He also used a few of her real-life clients in certain scenes, who were, apparently, more than willing to co-operate (some supposedly even paid for the privilege of being involved). The most notable of these is the gentleman who has nails hammered through his scrotum and into a plank of wood. This was all done on-screen and absolutely for real, although not done by Ogier herself. According to Schroeder, ‘The man who did that was actually a very real, very rich man. We were drinking champagne together and laughing half an hour after shooting the scene’. Just as it would be in life, nothing is staged. Bodies are stretched, men are chained up and ridden, nipples pierced, people are spanked and whipped so hard that during the course of the scenes you can see welt marks and the participants skin going red and quivering.
Unsurprisingly Maitresse was originally refused a certificate by the BBFC when it was first submitted in 1976 for release. The scenes of torture and fetishism were in the words of the BBFC itself ‘miles in excess of anything we have ever passed in this field’, although they agreed that Schroeder’s picture was well made and not exploitative. During 1980 it played in a handful of club cinemas in the country (as it could not be played publicly) and was eventually re-examined, cut by five minutes (especially the aforementioned scrotum scene) and given an X certificate (which it also received in the United States). Finally re-submitted again in 2003, it was given an 18 certificate and had all its previous cuts waived for release. Whilst one can understand why the BBFC cut what they did, it’s very jarring that they kept in a genuine abattoir slaughter of a horse which is in fact quite distressing and probably more uncomfortable to watch than the S&M scenes themselves.
Where critics found it ‘perverted‘ and ‘sordid‘, Schroeder maintained that the film was ‘an extremely healthy movie… joyous and life-affirming’. It’s impossible to not agree with the director based on this statement. Maitresse is a perfect example of putting the ‘human’ back in human sexuality on-screen. The beauty of human sexuality is the large spectrum of which is encompasses, and just because something may not be considered the ‘norm’ or a mainstream desire, does not mean that it is ultimately depraved. In the same way that 2002 release Secretary positively depicted the role of S&M in relationships, Maitresse shows how complex and beautiful the relationship between two people can be when based on ultimate desire, faith and trust. Far from depraved or abnormal, the film is in fact an unconventional love story composed of several small interlocking stories of love which all explore the idea of power play which is evident in all relationships (in a similar way that 9 1/2 Weeks explores this on a much smaller level in the one relationship of its leads). As much as many people would probably like to debate it, the themes in Maitresse are in fact very domestic and very ‘every day’.
Eventually Ariane and Olivier find some sort of understanding and equality in the films last scene, a happy ending of sorts in which the couple finally come to some sort of understanding of their relationship and the power play between them. By far one of the kinkiest films I have ever seen but also one of the most honest and intellectual, Maitresse really is a feature worth watching for the terrific character study between the two leads.
My reviews for the recently released Radley Metzger Erotica set by Arrow Films is now up over at Screenjabber. These are well worth picking up if you’re a fan of Metzger or erotic cinema in general; Arrow really have put out some great packages and these are restored and remastered. You can also read a recent interview I did with the legendary filmmaker here!
Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing erotica director extroadinaire Radley Metzger for my friends over at Cigarette Burns to celebrate the restored and remastered releases of his films Camille 2000, Lickerish Quartet and Score on the Arrow label. Well worth buying, these Blu Ray’s are packed with extras and the restoration quality is top of the range. Many thanks to Cigarette Burns and Will Taylor for their help with setting it up!
There is no denying that Powell and Pressburger’s classic feature Black Narcissus is seeping in underlying sexuality. Beneath the tale of a Convent struggling to cope in an isolated Himalayan community lies themes of repressed desire, controlled female sexuality and the power of primal instinct. Simmering with eroticism and visually stunning to watch, the film is a nuanced portrait on the power of human sexuality and it’s pressure within confined spaces.
Whilst the themes are prevalent in the character and storyline, the picture’s set design and cinematography heighten the subconscious. The run down palace in which the Convent set up their new school and dispensary is a blank canvas amidst a beautiful strange landscape, a bricks and mortar parallel to the virginal Nuns surrounded by an exotic unknown village brimming with experience. Just as the building eventually undergoes a transition from abandoned palace to busy school, so do the women of the Convent slowly become influenced by the building’s past as the home of the King’s women. An environment full of oestrogen, the physical presence of the two lead male characters builds more tension amongst the group of women then they could ever have imagined, their voluntary challenge to love and devote their life to one man, Christ, threatened by the natural human instinct they choose to try to suppress. It doesn’t matter how many curtains they cover the walls of the palace with, the sexual drawings of the past King’s wives and sexual positions of the karma sutra that they will never experience have permeated the skin of the Sisters like the ghost of a haunted house.
Take Sister Ruth. ‘Unwell’ when she arrives at the palace, her illness only gets worse the longer she stays, her sexual awakening overtaking her vows. Sick with passion, Sister Ruth is a transformation to watch, going from a sickly virgin to woman desperately ill with desire. I have never seen such acting before or since in a film such as Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth. Her eyes display every emotion across the sexual scale; arousal, longing, jealousy. Her sexual breakdown and embracement against Sister Clodagh’s (Deborah Kerr) repressed sexuality and emotional sadness is a joy to watch. The extremities of the two female ideals (the virgin and the whore dichotomy) played out with heated intensity. Just how difficult is it to deny a feeling so natural and real and try to replace it with a cause based solely on a belief? Clearly the struggle is a great one, Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks showing a man she was in love with and to marry demonstrate a strong battle to repress that matches Sister Ruth’s battle against faith in full force.
The entrance of village girl Kanchi (June Simmons) also heightens sexual tension amongst the women, for here is a girl much younger than them who appears to be knowledgable in her sexuality just as the Nun’s are knowledgable in their Christian faith. She knows how to subtlely show off her wares, slowly infiltrating not only the mind of the Prince who eventually falls in love with but also Sister Ruth whose sexual immaturity finds her advances being rejected. Kanchi, with her colourful sari’s, flowers in her hair and facial piercings, slowly rubs off onto the Sisters, their robes eventually looking more off-white, occasionally stained with blood (a visual metaphor for menstruation and the awakening of their womanhood) and eventually the application of make up (the scarlet red of lipstick perfectly clashing against the paper-white skin of Sister Ruth like a warning sign).
Ultimately, the film shows the struggle to deny something that’s constantly there. Just like the prevalent winds of the mountainous village, so does female sexuality haunt the occupants of the Convent, the most testing lesson that their faith could ever thrust upon them. Whether it be the sensuality that natures provides, the physical attraction of a prime male or the dangerous feelings the Sisters feel when they stand close to the edge of the mountain ringing the palace bell (the closest pictorial metaphor to an orgasm that the Nuns get, the wide-eyed expression looking down the mountain to the caverns below, heart pumping whilst continuing to tug away at the ropes to ring the schools bell), sexuality is a dark abyss that is easy to fall into. It doesn’t matter how much the Convent try to veil the problem, just as Dean’s attraction to the women is veiled behind a mask of dishonest denial, the feelings are so inescapable that they have to leave the village completely. Escapable? Perhaps. Unforgettable? No chance.
A strong film with a rather unfortunate weak ending, Liliana Cavani’s 1974 release The Night Porter is certainly a film that will stay in your mind once viewing. Tackling sexual power play, politics and psychology, Cavani’s feature is a complicated piece that asks more questions than it answers but presents a very conflicted picture. What would you do if your torturer and lover turned up in your life again over a decade later from when you first saw them? Water under the bridge or a broken dam about to inflict some serious damage?
Set in 1957 in post-war Vienna, our two leads, Max (Dirk Bogarde) and Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), have been trying to rebuild their lives after being on opposing sides during World War II. Max is now a night porter at a grand hotel, working during the night to hide himself (and his shame) away from the majority of the world. During the War Max was a high ranking SS Officer, now trying to eliminate evidence which and witnesses who might possess incriminating details on him. Lucia is now married to a wealthy American conductor, but as a young girl was an imprisoned in a concentration camp. Whilst in the camp Max took a shine to her and it is implied that the reason for her survival could be down to the fact that he fell in love with her, calling Lucia ‘His little girl’.
And it is here that things start to get a little complicated. Lucia winds up staying at the hotel Max works at and as soon as they lay their eyes on each other memories start flooding back. Cleverly told from flashback, the audience gets to explore their relationship from its beginnings through to its ambiguously messy developments which eventually see Lucia seemingly willing to play some of Max’s games (the most memorable scene of which see’s Rampling singing to and seducing a bunch of officers in nothing but a few pieces of SS costume, her reward being the head of an inmate who bullied her).
It’s not long before the past catches up with the both of them and the two end up in a passionate embrace which brings about their torturous love affair all over again. With either unable to leave the past behind, Max takes Lucia and keeps her at his apartment where they continue to play the sadomasochistic games they once played years ago. A compulsive need to repeat the past? Perhaps, as neither Max nor Lucia appear to have truly been able to shake off their experiences, Lucia still vulnerable and impressionable and Max still deluded in his thought that he will once again regain the military title he used to have and see Nazi political power restored in Europe. It also poses an interesting portrait on Stockholm Syndrome, showing how psychologically complex the issue really is and yet how easy it can be for some victims to fall for their captors.
A film that will no doubt divide audiences, some of whom will find it nothing more than complete exploitation and sensationalism of two topics, Nazism and the Holocaust, and some who may even question why the film was so controversial upon its release in the first place. It remains however a very strong portrait on the psychology behind sexual power play and just how deep scars of personal experience can run. It’s ending is most certainly a letdown but leaves the door open for you to question yourself and come to your own conclusions as a viewer.