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A man of many worlds, Barbet Schroeder has crossed over from his position as producer and director of European art cinema in the 1970s to mainstream Hollywood production, while still remaining capable of extraordinary personal low-budget auteur films on the order of Our Lady of the Assassins (2000). Born in Iran in 1941, Schroeder studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and wrote criticism for Cahiers du cinema before forming a production company that gave immense support to Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, as well as backing films of Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Schroeder’s earliest films as a director by Schroeder—More (1970) and La Vallée (1972)—clearly demonstrate his interest in subcultures and obsessive activity. In a 1977 interview, Schroeder discussed this inclination, stating, “In all my films there are people who go to the extremes of themselves, to the very end of their trajectories, with a strong fantasy driving them and with a sense of adventure.” Maîtresse, shot in Paris in 1976, is a key work engaging these interests.
Maîtresse turns on the encounter of free-spirited drifter and petty thief Olivier (Gérard Depardieu) and Ariane (Bulle Olgier), a professional dominatrix devoted to the needs of male masochists. Olivier stumbles into Ariane’s lair while attempting a burglary and the two quickly become lovers, executing their affair against a backdrop of jaw-dropping sadomasochistic activity.
Like the best cinema, S & M is about mise-en-scène. Ariane’s existence is divided between two completely unlike apartments, one above the other. The apartment above boasts large picture windows and traditionally tasteful Parisian décor; the apartment below is a windowless, mirrored dungeon, furnished with whips, chains, and dentist’s chair. A retractable staircase is the only link between two worlds.
Ariane conducts a straight romance with Olivier upstairs while she continues her sadistic activities below. But as the affair progresses, overground comes to mirror underground. The couple’s conventional relationship gradually develops unsettling emotionally parallels to Ariane’s relationship with her clients and the intertwining of the two levels of her habitation becomes an erotic Upstairs/Downstairs.
Schroeder’s classic of underground love greatly benefits from his choices of principal collaborators: stars Depardieu and Ogier, and Nestor Almendros, the most prominent cinematographer of his generation. Depardieu’s range is remarkable. A force of nature but a gentle giant, he blends a beefy physicality and renegade streetwise tone with emotional vulnerability. He introduced a new masculine image to the French screen—the macho matinee idol with a feminine side. A director’s actress, Ogier became a critics’ darling for her work in the films of Jacques Rivett, Alain Tanner, and Luis Buñuel. She’s equally convincing as a petite gamine or a minatory vamp. In Maîtresse, she’s spot-on as the leather-clad, whip-wielding mistress of what seems to be the most amply equipped pain parlor in Paris.
Barcelona-born Almendros, called by François Truffaut “one of the world’s great cinematographers,” became the favorite DP of Eric Rohmer, Schroeder, and Truffaut. This superb craftsman took risks, shooting as often as possible with natural light. A great citizen of world film, he also worked extensively in the U.S., where his credits include Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Sophie’s Choice (1982). He received an Academy Award for Days of Heaven (1978). Almendros died of AIDS in 1992.
An elegant romantic drama, Maîtresse doubles as a wicked black comedy. At one point, Ariane delightedly feeds insects to her gluttonous Venus fly-trap, to Olivier’s astonishment. And, indeed, love in Maîtresse is seen as something like a fly-trap—a devouring and painful affair. The director’s attitude toward consensual sadomasochism is coolly nonjudgmental—it obliges the viewer to acknowledge that the behavior on screen is merely an extreme form of quotidian relationships and everyday role-playing. Maîtresse’s sexual scenes are presented in a sober, unsensational style, with Schroeder’s use of real-life devotees of sadomasochism contributing to a frank portrait of a subculture rather than a freak show (all sequences of sadomasochistic activity were performed with the participation of actual masochists, who were masked. A professional maîtresse executed the footage of heavy flagellation and nailing). “It’s important to me all the way through to avoid any moral approach to the subject,” Schroeder remarks. “It seemed a question of having the right distance, always, even in terms of the camera: the proper distance for someone just contemplating these scenes. If you’re too far—and this is true especially of the scenes downstairs—if you’re too far, you’re avoiding the subject. If you’re too close, you’re trying to manipulate the audience; it has no choices to make. The right distance—it’s strange for me—I call the distance of love.”
In one of the film’s most striking scenes, a drunken Olivier is unconsciously drawn to a slaughterhouse at dawn. Here Schroeder reveals to us, behind the lovely facades of the streets of Paris, there are numerous hells. The abattoir is one such hell, and one more dreadful than the artificial hells we have seen at “Chez Ariane.” It contains an incredible shot of a dying horse beginning to gallop as it hangs upside down on hooks. Olivier buys a slab of horsemeat, which he consumes for breakfast. Coming after his unfortunate meeting with Gautier, Ariane’s presumed “protector,” this signifies an acting out of Olivier’s own unrealized desire to be a victim. As with so many others, beneath the armor of Olivier’s sadistic, aggressively macho exterior lies a repressed desire for the opposite.
However, masochism in Maîtresse isn’t maligned, nor does it ever play the role of a destructive agent. On the contrary, masochism is portrayed as a creative force. This is clear during Ariane and Olivier’s actions in the car during the last reel—going to extremes, they share risks and are, for the first time, partners in masochism. It is at this moment that, according to Schroeder, “masochism will be recognized and equal for both persons of the love affair, because at the wheel of the car they are equal; there is an equal dose of masochism in each of them.” It’s the climax of what is, at heart, a joyous and liberating film about the mysteries of love.
Film critic and historian Elliot Stein writes regularly for the Village Voice and programs the Cinemachat series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinématek.