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A common thief (Depardieu) breaks into the house of a professional dominatrix (Ogier), and begins to help her "train" her clients. Though this world is alien to his experience, he finds himself falling in love with her. Eventually he discovers that she does this in order to support her son, and he attempts to help her out of this life, which she is not sure she really wants to leave. Written by
Ed Sutton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
They made films as challenging and funny as this once. It was called the 70s.
Could you credit a film featuring an S&M dominatrix, a burly petty thief, and an all-powerful, mysterious businessman/probable pimp; a film which boasts elaborate scenes of bondage torture and mutilation, and a very graphic horse-slaughtering sequence, as well as more usual acts of petty thuggery, such as the hurling of a man down a stairs, or the drunken smashing of a bar-room window; could such a film be considered benevolent and optimistic? Because such is the ultimate feeling one gets from this weird, enigmatic, lovely film, once considered so scandalous it was banned in England, but now seems positively cuddly (the version I saw had four minutes cut. Go figure).
Olivier is a petty thief who meets up with an old friend, now a door-to-door salesman selling books on the Fine Arts. After a dismal lack of success, they come upon a woman, Ariane (hint of the spider?), panicking because her pipes have burst. The men fix the problem, and she says she'll write to the tenant beneath, currently on holiday. Seeing a chance for a quick clean out, the men break in downstairs, only to find a torture chamber, precision instruments of pain, racks, crucifixes, cages, in one of which creeps a cowering man, and a barking doberman.
This is the bondage chamber of Ariane, who descends from her own flat down metallic stairs in a fantastic rubber suit and cape, and blonde wig, admonishing the intruders. She asks Olivier to give her a hand with one of her clients, and they begin an affair. After getting over the shock of her profession, and initially content with his sponging life, he notices that Ariane has some kind of business relationship with the mysterious Gautier, whom he suspects to be her pimp. He goes to confront him.
Even by the mid-70s, the idea of bourgeois respectability being propped up by less socially acceptable means was hardly a revolutionary insight, and MAITRESSE seems less progressive than, say, BELLE DE JOUR, with an ending that is depressingly patriarchal or joyfully subversive, depending on how you read it. The film's success lies in its sustaining of enigma, with Olivier as our guide to the many mysteries Ariane raises. How did she get the money to set up such an operation (and the S&M chamber is an extraordinary, metallic, futuristic contraption, full of thematically pointed mirrors and ice-blue neon)? Who is this mysterious Gautier - a Godot-like figure, always expected but never arriving? What does Ariane do by day? Why does she go too the country manor? Where are her family?
Olivier's turning from a thief into a detective is part of his - and, by association, our, the viewer's - quest to explain Ariane, to deprive her of her power, which results precisely from her mystery. The bondage sessions, with those four minutes cut, are less an anthropological expose than comic (and some of them are very funny), and a literalisation of the real S&M that is going on, the power struggle between Ariane and Olivier, between the female bread-winner and her male dependent. Olivier says he wants to protect Ariane because she's scared, but he really wants to take over from Gautier in controlling her
Olivier's increasing minimalising in the film is striking - having begun on his motorbike, the centre of interest, free, driving the action; from taking over his friend's job, bullying the clients, setting the plot in motion; he becomes a marginal figure, sulking from the sidelines, with nothing to do but observe like us, useless, uncomprehending, bait in a conspiracy theory that's making fun of him. This is an unusual act of restraint for an actor of Depardieu's munificence, and is communicated with visual bluntness - who would we rather look at: a hefty beefcake in a sweat-soaked singlet, or a beautiful housewife putting on the most fascinating outfits and make-up, like an actress at her dressing table?
The style of the film adds to the air of paranoia and uncertainty. Having been told that the cuts related simply to the more extreme forms of mutilation, I assume that the ellipses and contradictions are part of the narrative method. This is all the more jolting because Schroeder's very full mise-en-scene seems to give us all the information we need, but how can we know anything when we identify with a character from whom everything is concealed? Seemingly realistic scenes turn out to be role-play and vice-versa (the Schroeder-Ogier connection with Rivette isn't as implausible here as you might first think). Schroeder refuses to make it easier by explanatory close-ups or expressive acting. The best thing is just to sit back and enjoy the confusion.
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