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The Criterion Collection presents
Maîtresse (1976)

"I don't understand anything anymore."
- Olivier (Gérard Depardieu)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: March 17, 2004

Stars: Bulle Ogier, Gérard Depardieu
Other Stars: André Rouyer, Nathalie Keryan, Roland Bertin, Tony Taffin, Holger Löwenadler, Anny Bartanovski, Serge Berry, Richard Caron, Pierre Devos, Jeanne Herviale, Michel Pilorgé, Cécile Pochet
Director: Barbet Schroeder

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, animal slaughter, graphic sexual fetishism, language)
Run Time: 01h:52m:50s
Release Date: February 03, 2004
UPC: 037429185728
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B C+B+B C+

DVD Review

Before turning to directing himself, Barbet Schroeder began making his mark on French cinema amid the icons of the New Wave movement. As a producer, he is credited with the bulk of Eric Rohmer's early work, and as an actor under Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard. Schroeder's directorial debut, More (1969), examined the world of drug addiction, while its followup, La Vallée (1972) delved into the realm of a group of hippies seeking spiritual enlightenment in the jungle. Maîtresse continues to demonstrate Schroeder's fascination with subculture, this time the world of sadomasochism. The film would be the director's second with Bulle Ogier, who stars opposite a young Gérard Depardieu in one of his first features. Due to the nature of the subject matter, and some of its graphic scenes, this will not be a film appropriate for many viewers.

Olivier (Depardieu) has just arrived in Paris when he hooks up with an old friend, who is using a ruse selling books door to door as a way to infiltrate people's homes prior to burglarizing them. When the pair first meet Ariane (Ogier), she invites them into her chic apartment, where they are called to her assistance in stopping an overflowing bath, and their conversation leads them to believe that the dwelling downstairs is currently unoccupied, its owner away on vacation. However, when they break in later on, they instead discover a world of illicit sexual subversion; a neon lit dungeon filled with whips, manacles, cages, and an array of leather wear and torture devices. They are further shocked when, after being cornered by a Doberman pinscher, a staircase descending from the ceiling reveals the formerly innocent-looking woman from upstairs in full blown dominatrix attire. Unable to escape, Olivier is employed for one of Ariane's sadomasochism sessions, and intrigued by the woman, asks her out for dinner. Their relationship is furthered when Ariane suggests they head out to the country, all the while planning a visit to another of her clients. As Olivier becomes increasingly involved in and attracted to her lifestyle, he begins to feel uneasy about the other men in her life. But when his curiosity starts to focus on one in particular, it threatens to upset the delicate balance that defines Ariane's existence.

The setup is summed up in one of the early scenes where Olivier expresses the thrill of looking behind the façade, and glimpsing into other people's secret lives. It presents a story of duality—the contrast of the meek and vulnerable upstairs Ariane, and her downstairs persona; Olivier, both trying to dominate the relationship, yet at the same time secretly desiring to be the victim. Like many of his other films, Schroeder found his inspiration for the picture through one of his real life acquaintances, who served as technical advisor on the film as well as Ogier's stand in for some of the more delicate administrations. In striving for authenticity, he also employed, without their prior knowledge, her actual clients, capturing their treatment from an almost documentary perspective.

As one of the first motion pictures to detail S&M rituals, it is not surprising that the film was immediately banned in several countries for scenes of flagellation, of a man having his penis repeatedly nailed to a piece of wood and his nipples pierced with foot long needles, or Ariane's clientele being ridden like horses, caged and handcuffed, stretched on a rack or tied to a cross. There is nothing judgmental, nor is there any real attempt at creating eroticism; there is merely observation, but it is this passive approach that is the film's eventual downfall.

While Schroeder is able to lure us into Arianne's world at the start, by the latter part of the film, the spectacle overshadows the storytelling. Lensed by ace cinematographer Néstor Almendros, the look is impressive, and there is no room for criticism based on style, but there is a sense that the director's preoccupation with challenging his audience with S&M practices took front seat to building a credible story or dimensional characters. Schroeder's artistic indulgence is furthered in another sequence, in which a horse is slaughtered on camera, and seen dangling by one leg, still flailing as blood gushes from his neck, followed by Olivier's consuming the meat as a form of metaphoric symbolism. Once you get past the shock value, the film seems fairly shallow, and while there is nothing really to fault in the performances, the characters lack chemistry, which undermines any sense of realism in their relationship, making the twists and turns feel manipulated and just more of the show. The ending is another letdown, (although it appears to be the inspiration for Cronenberg's Crash), which while resolving the conflict between the principles, is unrealistic, and feels simply like a bail out. While it may provide an eye-opening look at the world of sexual domination and submission, that is about the extent of its reward.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion provides a new, director approved, anamorphic transfer at the film's original 1.66:1 apsect ratio. Colors are bright and well saturated, black levels solid, and detail respectable. The source is relatively clean. The image is sharp, but there is noticible edge enhancement throughout, and vertical and horizontal lines, such as shutters, gates, and pinstriping, tend to shimmer excessively.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in original French mono. Location dialogue is fairly sibilant and thin sounding, and there is a moderate amount of background noise present in places. Most, if not all of these issues relate to the source.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Interview with Barbet Schroeder
  2. Essay
Extras Review: The lone on-disc extra is a recent interview with director Barbet Schroeder, who, among other things, explains the origins of his interest in the subject matter, and how a few of the more challenging scenes came together. It is always interesting to hear what a film's creator has to say about their work, and this installment is no exception. This feature runs 14m:33s.

An essay on the film by film critic Elliott Stein is included in the enclosed foldout booklet.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Barbet Schroeder's controversial third film finds a home in the Criterion Collection. Maîtresse will play well with select audiences, but the average viewer may not be all that keen on the subject matter or the graphic content. Worth a rental for the curious, but definitely not for everyone.


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