From a narrative perspective, one of the most intriguing things a film can do is lead us into the unknown. One thing after another occurs, during which we have no real idea where things are heading. We only recognize that we're in it for the long haul and invested enough to see what happens next. The best example I know of this phenomenon is Martin Scorsese's After Hours, a film in which anything seems possible and the viewer is trained to accept each bizarre development with a healthy disbelief but never a lack of plausibility. Similar instances of it occur in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild and even Lynch's Blue Velvet. A lesser known case might be the 1966 James Garner starrer Mister Buddwing. From its earliest scenes, the French film Maîtresse plays as a worthy addition to this odd fraternity. Previously released on DVD by the Criterion Collection and the BFI, it's now available on Blu-ray from the latter.
In Maîtresse, Gerard Depardieu plays a kind of drifter who's first seen meeting up with an old friend. Depardieu has nowhere to stay at the moment but is relying on the promise of a job in a few weeks' time. His friend is currently selling art books door to door. The particular door they're shown landing at has Bulle Ogier behind it. Circumstances lead Depardieu's Olivier into discovering that Ogier specializes in satisfying certain sexual needs. She's a dominatrix/mistress who caters to expensive clients. He fulfills some need. And while Ogier's character Ariane at times comes off as a fantasy creation complete with pretty blonde hair and dark eye shadow, her interactions with Depardieu are consistently imbued with a warmth and desire that serve to ground the film in a necessary place of humanism. While Ogier might indeed be as unlikely a character as you're likely to encounter, her actions tend to be fiercely supportive of Depardieu. The romantic angle of the film is an odd one that nonetheless embraces its eccentricities.
Director Barbet Schroeder made perhaps the most unlikely of his films with Maîtresse. In a career as eclectic as it is uneven, Schroeder has established himself as unpredictable above all else but this reteaming with Ogier after La Vallee particularly stands out as uncharacteristic. Maîtresse is more than simply a whim beholden to the cinema of the times. It's a very fine exploration of the unknown that challenges sexual, social and cinematic taboos. We're left with something that emerges, defying expectations, as deeply romantic. As fantastic as the character may seem at times, Ogier comes off as perfect in her portrayal. It's difficult to understand the whys but Ogier remains so persuasive as to shrug off motivation in favor of appreciating such a lofty commitment. We never find the complete details of Ariane's situation but we're nonetheless left sure of her affection for Olivier.
The relationship these two characters establish allows the film to explore its more unusual side without alienating the less adventurous viewers. By this I mean only that we see Ariane at work, complete with very difficult scenes ripe with sadomasochism and men in leather masks, but there's also a balance closely connected which provides something more relatable to those unfamiliar with that particular landscape. Schroeder seems intent on presenting Ariane's world through the point of view of Olivier, an outsider. This tends to endear someone watching who's in roughly the same position of distant curiosity as he is. The back and forth between Ariane's work and play also creates a fascinating insight into how complicated she has to be. The control she employs with her clients must become measured as she finds the tenderness and vulnerability needed while dealing with Olivier.
When the fragile nature of their relationship begins showing signs of cracking, there's an inevitability at play but also something more. Schroeder never positions the situation between Olivier and Ariane as ideal. It's always pretty clear that the dynamic is tenuous and its end more or less assured. It's thus a bit surprising that we're left feeling so deflated when things take a turn for the worse. Olivier is not a particularly sympathetic character yet he seems to recognize his own mistakes on some level and, at the same time, be a slave to such behavior. The mere idea of what he's been plunged into narrows the possible solutions. When an additional situation, involving the powerful and mysterious Monsieur Gautier, emerges, we lose sight of any viable exit. Olivier's behavior takes a harsh turn, including a visit to an abattoir that's shown with gruesome, unflinching coldness, and he soon finds himself in an overwhelming situation that's based somewhat on the central disconnect he's never been able to overcome with Ariane.
Again, the more controversial elements of Maîtresse tend to overwhelm most any conversation about the film but it's always felt secondary to me when considering my affection for it. The main thought is how engrossing the movie seems from the very beginning, when we're not quite sure what's going on or where it's all leading. I also tend to appreciate Schroeder's willingness to lead the viewer through a world with which most of us have little familiarity, and to do so in such an objective manner. It all becomes very much like that After Hours-type of journey mentioned earlier, where we broadly recognize certain aspects but are introduced to a wide variety of others. There's nothing at all exploitative on display here. At its most basic, the film registers as a love story built around a background of sadomasochism. As strange as it may sound, it's the inherent sweetness that carries the day for me. I tend to see it as one of more interesting films of the seventies.
Following up the earlier releases of More and La Vallee, the BFI has brought out Maîtresse in a Dual Format edition containing both DVD and Blu-ray discs. Both are dual-layered. It's locked to Region B.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and has been transferred in High Definition from the original 35mm interpositive. It looks very good indeed, absent any real instances of digital imperfections or damage. Grain structure appears natural. The colors display a strong level of brightness when necessary and otherwise seem faithful to the intentions of Schroeder and cinematographer Nestor Almendros.
Audio emerges via a French language PCM mono track that similarly offers no problems. Dialogue sounds clear. The well-balanced track is consistent in volume and shows no signs of damage. Subtitles are offered in English but are optional. They are white in color. A very minor complaint is that a few simple responses in French seem to remain untranslated.
A featurette running nearly half an hour is the primary on-disc supplement. "Domestic Masochism" (28:13) has interviews with just two contributors, neither of whom seem too interested in discussing the film beyond its most basic facades. Even more frustrating is that Dr. Patricia MacCormack repeats her thoughts both here and in the included booklet.
Trailers for More (2:53), TheValley (3:42) and Maîtresse (2:02), all of which now exist as Dual Format releases from the BFI, are also here.
The booklet runs for 30 pages and includes the four-page essay by MacCormack, a remembrance by Barbet Schroeder lasting five pages, and a history of the film's encounters with the BBFC by Craig Lapper. Biographies of Schroeder, Ogier and Depardieu, as well as still images and credits for the film and disc, can also be found in the insert.