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MAITRESSE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Gerard Depardieu, Bulle Ogier
Director:  Barbet Schroeder
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Barbet Schroeder Interview
Length:  112 Minutes
Release Date:  February 3, 2004

“It’s fascinating to get into other people’s madness…”

Film ***

I guess if nothing else, Maitresse proves you DO always hurt the ones you love. ;-)

French director Barbet Schroeder has been going strong in the movie business for quite some time now, thank you very much, but it’s probably safe to say that Maitresse is singularly unique in his filmography.  It’s part romance, part mystery, part black comedy about a young man and woman who fall in love.  She happens to be a professional dominatrix, but hey, nobody ever said the course of love runs smoothly.

When Olivier (a young Depardieu) reluctantly assists a friend in breaking into a ‘downstairs’ apartment, they find the shock of their lives:  a cold, neon blue dungeon of torture, complete with mirrors, costumes, dentist chair, cross, cages, and every implement you could imagine (and probably several you couldn’t).  Even more surprising is when an electric metal staircase descends from the ceiling to reveal…gasp…that the sweet young lady upstairs they just spoke to is the mistress of this underworld!

Caught in the act of theft, anything could happen to the fellows, but what happens isn’t what they expect.  The mistress Ariane (Ogier) asks Olivier to briefly assist her with a client.  Immediately, our minds race to try and guess what’s he’s going to have to do.  And we’re quite wrong.

Ariane and Olivier begin as normal a relationship as can be had, but needless to say, it’s all rather surreal for Olivier.  Upstairs is a posh, stylish French apartment and the loving arms of a beautiful woman.  Downstairs is a world of pain and pleasure lorded over by a whip-cracking, no-nonsense dominatrix.  And both are the same woman.

Olivier tries to be dutiful while the lines between fantasy and reality constantly blur.  Ariane’s existence is filled with men who pay her to be her victim; is he just another one in her eyes?  He becomes obsessed with a distant Godot-like figure called Gautier, whom she never discusses with him, but who seems to be getting a fair share of her earnings.  Is he a pimp, a blackmailer, or something else?  Olivier can’t seem to stand the thought of him having control over Ariane, but what are his motives?  Her best interests?  Or does HE want to have the control?

This is not a film for the squeamish, despite some comic undertones.  Some of the scenes of sadomasochism are quite graphic and unapologetic…director Barbet Schroeder actually used real mistresses as on set consultants, and many of the masked victims in the film are real masochists getting real punishment (you can see red skin, welts and blood in various scenes). 

There is a constant visual theme of depravity lurking underneath the surface, whether it’s Ariane’s dungeon or an abattoir just in the distance from where horses roam the fields.  We are also constantly asked to complete the nature of being serviced by others’ suffering:  as Ariane makes money by inflicting pain, we also observe a Venus Flytrap being fed insects, or in the film’s most disturbing scene, a horse being slaughtered, which is followed by Olivier ordering and consuming a couple of horsemeat steaks (can I interject a heartfelt “ewww” here?)

This movie is no Salo in that there’s at least a method to the madness, plus a story to tell and real characters to invest in.  The wicked sense of humor adds style to the shock value.  Maitresse may not be the best film to come from overseas, but it’s the kind of picture that will give you plenty to talk about after.

Video ***

The anamorphic offering from Criterion is quite strong, with good (though occasionally deliberately muted) coloring, sharp images, crisp lines and good detail, which you’ll really appreciate when you get a gander at Ariane’s dungeon!  One dark scene seemed a little murky, but it was brief.  The print itself was very clean and largely free of dirt and debris.

Audio **

This is a serviceable, non-demanding mono soundtrack.  Dialogue is in French, but seems clean and clear enough.  Dynamic range is minimal, and I didn’t really notice any distracting noise.

Features *

Included on the disc is a new interview with Barbet Schroeder, plus a cool animated menu screen.

Summary:

My advice is to examine your constitution carefully before indulging in Maitresse.  For those with the right taste and an ability to appreciate black comedy, this is a unique walk on the darker side of fantasy.