Maîtresse (IMDB) is a 1976 French romance film, directed by Barbet Schroeder and written by Barbet Schroeder and Paul Voujargol. (All dialog quotations are from the subtitles.)
Maîtresse concerns Olivier (Gerard Depardieu), a young petty criminal, who tries to burgle an apartment and instead enters the dungeon of a professional dominatrix, Ariane (Bulle Ogier). They start an unlikely and troubled romance.
When Olivier and a friend stumble into the darkened dungeon, they enter a fantastic world they know nothing about. Ariane, in her dominatrix outfit, finds them and easily holds them captive with her trained dog, Texas. She offers Olivier “Two hundred francs for three minutes’ work.”
This is for urinating on the face of one of Ariane’s clients. While Olivier’s crotch is level with the client’s mouth, he’s face to face with Ariane, who kisses him passionately.
After Ariane lets Olivier and his friend go, Olivier sends him away, then returns to ask Ariane for a late night dinner. She asks him about where he’s from, what he does, but he says he doesn’t really have a past. He asks her what she does, but she says he shouldn’t ask questions because “Either I lie, or I don’t answer them.”
They return to Ariane’s place, and the next day she takes him along on a drive in the country. This turns out to be a trip to a chateau where Ariane humiliates the butler, Emile, and takes Olivier into a small party where she urges him to spank a young naked woman with her husband. More curious than aroused, Olivier agrees and beats her ass with his belt.
After the party, we see that Emile is the lord of the manor, and the real butler serves everybody. Olivier, not getting how this works, says, “Butter my toast, Emile.” Fortunately, Emile and Ariane laugh this off.
Needless to say, this is not a model of consent or negotiation, but it does show BDSM as a means of pleasure and intimacy.
The conflict stems from Olivier’s insecurity and old-school attitudes about gender roles. He’s confronted with a woman who is a “whore”, yet has far more wealth and status than he does. Ariane seems very in control of herself, wealthy enough to afford a housekeeper and two lavish apartments. However, Olivier notices that she keeps getting mysterious calls from a “Monsieur Gautier” and going on unexplained errands with large amounts of cash. Olivier assumes that Gautier must be her pimp, or some kind of gangster controlling her.
He’s more or less comfortable with the dominant position, but is at pains to distinguish himself from her clients. We don’t get to know them as people, and only know about them through Ariane.
Olivier: “Why do they do it? Can’t they come? Is it the only way they can come?”
Ariane: “Not at all. They make love often, like normal people, at home, with their wife, mistress or girlfriend.”
Olivier: “Do you ever make love with them?”
Ariane: “No, never. Some things don’t mix. All I do is direct the show.”
Olivier: “So I’ve noticed. Strange, isn’t it? They’re the ones who tell you what to say?”
Ariane: “They tell me what they want. And I use my imagination to improve on it. I get into their fantasies, their lives.”
Olivier: “That’s good. I like that.”
Olivier doesn’t understand Ariane’s dual nature, the bourgeois woman upstairs and the whip-cracking seductress downstairs. Ariane doesn’t seem to understand herself. She often does risky things on impulse, and once has a major panic attack in the middle of a scene with three clients simultaneously. She staggers upstairs, gasps, “I can’t breathe,” and pleads with Olivier to help her with her corset. For a moment, it looks like she’s going to jump from the balcony, but Olivier pulls her back. Once the panic fades, she fixes her makeup and heads downstairs again, over Olivier’s objections.
Olivier: “Enough playing the whore and then breaking down!”
Ariane: “I’m not playing the whore. I am a whore and I like it. I chose this life.”
In conversation with Olivier, Ariane says:
Ariane: “You have to be completely available. And with you here… it’s difficult. It’s getting difficult.”
Ariane can’t set boundaries, even for the practical difficulties of seeing three clients in the same session.
Later, we see Olivier and Ariane doing a scene in an alley, with him as the street thug harassing her and threatening her with a switchblade until he drags her into a locker and they have sex. When an old woman confronts them, Olivier just says his wife is an exhibitionist. They walk off, arm in arm, laughing.
Ariane: “Tomorrow we’ll play another game.”
The tension about Ariane’s divided attentions, the economic inequality between them, and the mystery about Gautier keeps gnawing at Olivier. During a break in one of her sessions, he grabs her and carries her over his shoulder, saying he will “have her” in front of her clients.
This is one of the scenes in the film that just abruptly ends without resolution, suggesting that the film was cut.
Eventually, Olivier tracks down the mysterious Gautier, who appears to be an executive, and demands that he “give” Ariane to him, setting himself up as her pimp, though he says he will take a smaller cut. Gautier does so like he’s humoring Olivier.
Olivier calls Ariane to tell her he’s “freed” her. He goes to a slaughterhouse and watches as a horse is slaughtered on camera, then he buys some horse steaks, goes back to Ariane’s place, and eats them.
Ariane is enraged. She throws Olivier out. She yells at him for violating her privacy and ruining their relationship.
Ariane: “He loves me enough to let me live the way I want. […] He would have given me my freedom.”
Olivier tries to return the money she gave him, but instead finds that Ariane has vanished and her dungeon is being dismantled by workers.
The mystery is finally solved when Olivier tracks down Ariane at a chateau owned by Gautier. There he sees Ariane with Gautier and a child, who addresses Gautier as “Papa”, showing that Ariane had an illegitimate child with a high-status man.
Olivier leaves the money, but Ariane chases after him. They make out in her car while driving, crash, and walk out of the woods, laughing.
The ending is ambiguous in that we don’t know if Ariane has quit being a pro domme. It seems to follow the same narrative as Something Wild and Preaching to the Perverted, in which a female dominant/male submissive relationship can only be positively resolved if one or both of the people give up their positions.
Maîtresse was ahead of its time regarding sex work and BDSM, years before Cruising (1980) or Eating Raoul (1982). It shows the variety of interests and equipment needed, everything from riding whips to baby bottles to communion wafers. It also deploys the standard trope of dominatrix-as-caretaker. Also note that the costumes were by Karl Lagerfeld.
Barbet Schroeder is the Iranian-born director and co-writer. He married Bulle Ogier in 1991. They first worked together as director and star in La vallée (1972) and later on other films. Ogier had a part in Irma Vep (1996).