‘Maîtresse’ – Boasting an X rating and a devilishly ambiguous tagline

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Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Written by Barbet Schroeder and Paul Voujargol

France, 1975

Some films gain a reputation immediately but lose it over time.  Case-in-point: The Blair Witch Project maintains its reputation as a trend-setter, but no longer evokes the same mystique and scares that its initial release and ingenious advertising campaign caused.  Other films keep that reputation.  Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse is one of those films.

Boasting an X rating, the devilishly ambiguous tagline, “She will open your eyes,” and a poster that intentionally crops out faces of an S&M scene, focusing instead on the bodies, Maîtresse still appears on “Most Controversial” film lists some 36 years later.

A young Gérard Depardieu plays Olivier, a simple, hulking thief recently released from prison.  He and his partner Mario (André Rouyer) are interrupted in the midst of a bumbling job by Ariane (Bulle Ogier), an unassuming dominatrix.  Olivier falls instantly in love and Ariane returns his affection, though the two have some trouble reconciling their rather disparate lives.

In an interview on the Criterion DVD, Schroeder talks about the distance required to shoot such a film.  One wants to avoid being too close and intimate and also too far and clinical, he says.  The distance he chooses – composed of literal distance in the form of predominant medium-shots, and figurative distance in the aloof performances he draws from Depardieu and Ogier – is just right.  The viewer is not quite the voyeur in the closet, but also not far enough to find comfort in disassociation.

At times Maîtresse’s position among the divisive feels deserved.  A whipping scene reminiscent of Buñuel’s masterpiece Belle de jour and a particularly masochistic moment involving nails and male genitalia still have the power to redden the cheeks of a modern viewer.  Yet Schroeder is tactful enough to make the human elements the focus.  It’s in this way that his film is more allied with a Buñuel satire and less with the exploitation films of the time.

As Maîtresse progresses the two protagonists become more dependent upon one-another, and their symbiotic love threatens to shatter both of their holds on their well-worn lives.  The climax of the film, a nearly silent, breathtakingly tense, and desperately romantic drive through the country, finds the couple in perfect synthesis and the narrative in perfect closure: Olivier and Ariane laughingly fleeing the wreckage of a burning car, running through the jungle, as though returning to some primitive roots, and Schroeder, after finally thrusting the viewer into the uncomfortable close-ups he so long avoided, dutifully following, back at his predisposed distance.

– Neal Dhand


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