Saturday 19 June 2021

On Criterion Blu-ray and DVD - John Baxter revives memories of an eye-popper from the 70s - MAÎTRESSE (Barbet Schroeder, France, 1975)


Gerard Depardieu, Bulle Ogier, Texas the Doberman,
and the bath with snakes, Maîtresse

 The story goes that a young actress, seeking to fast-track her career, engineered a dinner à deux  with producer/director Barbet Schroeder.

            “You can only have two reasons to seek the company of an ancient like myself,” he said over the escargots. “Either you hope I will use you in a film....” 

            She assured him that nothing was further from her mind.

            “....or you wish to have a sexual relationship. In that case,” he continued,  ignoring her demur, “you should know that, with me, it must always end in blood.”  

            True or not, this anecdote  hints at why such a man might make the 1975 Maîtresse. 

            Schroeder’s films range from More, celebrating the drop-out generation, to the stalking thriller Single White Female, not forgetting his witty riffs on those seedy characters Klaus von Bulow and Idi Amin Dada. Wearing another hat, he produced Eric Rohmer’s Le Genou de Claire and Ma Nuit Chez Maud, and Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont on bateau. 

            While, superficially, these have little in common, they share an interest in outsiders and the price they pay for living on their own terms.  

            Such a person was dominatrix Monique von Cleef, aka The Baroness. A colourful feature of Manhattan’s sixties sex scene, her penthouse “pain parlor” was shut down by the NYPD in 1967 amid fears that the Pentagon officials among her clients risked blackmail. She moved her operation to Amsterdam, then Paris, where she and Schroeder crossed paths, inspiring Maîtresse

            Naive Olivier (Gérard Depardieu), fed up with his job in a slaughterhouse, comes to Paris, and hooks up with an old mate who burgles apartments while the owners are away for the summer. The first they crack, however, isn’t empty.  Its closets bulge with leather and rubber outfits, and sundry instruments of chastisement, while the bathroom houses a cage with an apparently willing occupant (Roland Bertin).  

Depardieu wth one of Ariane's clients (Roland Bertin)

            They have stumbled on the “dungeon” of dominatrix Ariane (Schroeder’s wife Bulle Ogier), who lives upstairs. Connected by a folding steel staircase hidden under the coffee table, her home is only slightly less bizarre. Its bath is embedded in an aquarium filled with sea snakes and she keeps some carnivorous Venus Flytraps, to which she coos as she feeds them flies.

            Arianne and Olivier hit it off, and he becomes her companion, equally useful in fixing a blocked bathtub and urinating on a client. She even takes him on a house call to a country chateau, where they are greeted by the butler Emile (Tony Taffin) who, Olivier belatedly realises after Ariane orders him to clean his shoes and grinds out a cigarette on his hand, is no servant but another customer. An orgy follows, in which Olivier enthusiastically participates.  Habitually slow on the uptake, however, he still hasn’t quite got it the following morning when they sit down to breakfast. “Emile,” he orders, “butter me some toast,” momentarily forgetting that the games are over and the toys back in the box. 

Tony Taffin as Emile wipes Depardieu's shoe
whle Bulle Ogier watches

            Exactly contemporary with Just Jaeckin’s self-congratulatory Histoire d’O, Maîtresse offers an ironic commentary on its Vogue-ish vision  of bondage and sado-masochism. Both films, like Bunuel’s Belle de Jour,  were part of a  debate in French society that began with Simone de Beauvoir’s 1953 Must We Burn Sade?  It argued that Sade’s pornography obscured an important argument about free will. What were its limits? Did it excuse doing violence to others, and to one’s self? 

            To judge from Maîtresse, Schroeder had doubts.  Karl Lagerfeld designed Ogier’s costumes but her activities when wearing them are scarcely haute couture, and the scenes of torture, shot by Nestor Almendros in bilious green half-light (and featuring actual S/M devotees, who reportedly paid to participate) are less Sade than sad.  Ariane’s activities don’t leave her replete like Belle de Jour or as fulfilled as O, who exclaims to the engineer of her torments “You made me healthy and happy, and a thousand times more alive.” Instead she collapses from a panic attack,

            With the possible exception of an episode involving male genitals, a plank and some two-inch nails, the film is tame by today’s standards. More troubling to contemporary sensibility than its dungeon scenes is one where Olivier, desperate to reconnect with reality, visits an abattoir, and watches a horse stunned, hung up, and, still kicking desperately, drained of blood. On his way home, he stops at a boucherie chevaline  for a couple of horsemeat steaks, which he devours with relish. “I had a bit of a party,” he tells Ariane with a grin. 

             Histoire d’O, which Dominique Aury wrote as a divertissement for her lover Jean Paulhan,  originally included a long thriller sub-plot describing the criminal activities of its wealthy sadists. Paulhan persuaded her to remove it, arguing that narrative and character are irrelevant to erotica, in which appetite rules all. 

Depardieu and Ogier enjoying sex in a speeding car.

             Subversively, Schroeder chooses to tell his backstory, and sends Olivier on a bumbling search for the mysterious M. Gautier (Danish actor Holger Löwenadler) who appears to exercise some sinister hold over Ariane. Instead of high crimes and misdemeanours, however, he uncovers a prosaic domestic arrangement in which, we infer, a complaisant husband has indulged his wife’s fantasies of sexual dominance by financing her dungeon as others might back a boutique.  Relieved to have this out in the open, the lovers enjoy some delirious sex in a speeding car, culminating in a wreck from which they stroll away, laughing.  Not exactly an ending in blood, but then Ariane isn’t exactly a dominatrix, and Olivier is enough of a wimp to give pimping a bad nameSomewhere, the Divine Marquis must be shaking his head in despair.  

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