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Maîtresse: The Criterion Collection

Barbet Schroeder professes a humble distaste for the title of "auteur." He prefers "adventurer"; an apt designation for a man who has sought to depict worlds rarely glimpsed in the cinema with any measure of verisimilitude. From the brawling, booze-swilling sphere of Charles Bukowski in Barfly (1987) to the rarefied air of European aristocracy in Reversal of Fortune (1990), Schroeder has, at his best, made good on his intention with an unwavering and unafraid objectivity, avoiding both satire and caricature where many filmmakers would be inclined to signal their disapproval or supposed superiority. This is more difficult than it sounds, and Schroeder only pulls it off due to his commendable affection for all those who wander into his frame. In a film like Our Lady of the Assassins (2000), which found the director shooting on location in the notoriously perilous ghettos of Colombia to give a naturalistic veracity to the tale of a wanton teenaged murderer, such empathy can be remarkably disquieting. But in an earlier work like Maîtresse (1973), such an approach allows for an unusually calm and surprisingly unerotic exploration of the carefully guarded double-life of a dominatrix. Schroeder begins the film following two inept door-to-door book salesmen, Olivier (Gerard Depardieu) and Mario (Andre Rouyer), through the streets and apartment buildings of Paris as door after door gets slammed shut in their faces. While Mario is solely interested in a quick payoff, which might entail a little breaking-and-entering should business continue to be slow, Olivier yearns to be granted access to a stranger's flat so that he might see how they live. In the best tradition of "Be careful what you wish for…" Olivier's modest dream is realized when a panicked Ariane (Bulle Ogier) whisks the pair into her well-appointed apartment to shut off a stuck water-main. Olivier is immediately taken with Ariane, but when she offhandedly mentions that her downstairs neighbor is away on holiday, Mario sees a prime burgling opportunity. However, their subsequent break-in reveals that this vacationing neighbor is actually a cover for Ariane's double-life as a whip-wielding dominatrix. After surprising and capturing the pair with the assistance of her snarling Doberman, Ariane presses Olivier into service, asking him to assist in the humiliation of one of her clients. She does this not only out of convenience, but because she, too, felt a carnal attraction on their initial meeting; thus, after the business at hand is rather messily handled, the two go out for a night on the town, finishing their impromptu date in her bedroom. Though Olivier is curious about Ariane's double-life, it largely grows out of his genuine affection for her, and a desire to, if not be involved, then to at least understand every aspect of her existence. But Ariane has become accustomed to a certain distance — the careful demarcation of her professional and personal worlds is bluntly symbolized by the drastic difference of the two apartments, and the last thing she needs is Olivier blurring the two. Nevertheless, he persists in combining the two, and when Ariane refuses to let him in on the secret of her shadowy benefactor Gautier (Holger Lowenadler), he inadvisably begins poking around on his own, threatening not only to wreck their relationship, but to destroy all that she holds dear — most notably her adolescent son.

*          *          *

As a dispassionate look into the twisted world of masochists, Maîtresse is a frequently fascinating — if unsettling — experience, and was certainly unique in its unfettered access until Nick Broomfield's full-on documentary Fetishes. Schroeder is fearless, unflinchingly filming some horribly disturbing acts of consensual torture — none worse than one involving a hammer, nail, and human flesh. To his credit, Schroeder does not play up these sequences for their "Mondo"-esque brutality, forcing the viewer to ponder how a human being could derive pleasure from such extreme pain. Unfortunately, the best he could do story-wise was to deliver a tepid romance in which outsider and insider struggle to attain an emotional equilibrium that might help sustain their relationship. That it works at all is due to the sensational performances from Depardieu and Ogier, both of whom imbue their sketchily written characters with a sexual and emotional confusion that nicely complements the audience's own uneasiness. A rising star at the time in French cinema, Depardieu powers the film with a compelling combination of bratty determination and childlike vulnerability. His Olivier is not at all secure in his manhood, rendering him a disastrous match for the much more polished Ariane, whom Ogier establishes as a woman satisfied with her dual existence so long as her son is the only man in her life. "It's fascinating to get into other people's madness so intimately," says Ariane — a statement which pretty much sums up the film's appeal. If only Schroeder had been as brave in his scripting of this madness, as he is in his visual depiction of it. But this should come as no surprise — Schroeder (who also scripted the film with Paul Voujargol) has never been a particularly daring writer. With the scuzzy poetry of Bukowski, Schroeder can be a formidable artist. Absent such a powerful voice, he's just a voyeur who's only as interesting as his subject matter. The Criterion Collection presents Maîtresse in a terrific anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) with solid Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras are scant, including a recently taped interview with Barbet Schroeder (14 min.), in which the director briefly recounts his days with Cahiers du Cinema, his early experiences as a producer, and how his filmmaking philosophy was utilized in the making of this rather tricky picture. Rounding out this release is a new essay by critic Elliott Stein. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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