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.