Why is it that every movie about a dominatrix follows the same trite storyline where the hardened, leather-clad woman in charge softens the moment she finds a romantic partner who can lower her defenses? From corny, vintage domme media like Body of Evidence & Exit to Eden to more modern, thoughtfully considered dramas like Dogs Don’t Wear Pants & Pvt Chat, every feature-length depiction of a dominatrix’s love life I’ve seen is framed through a macho “I can fix her” POV. That tradition apparently dates at least as far back as 1975’s Maîtresse, in which a young, bumbling thief (Gérard Depardieu) falls in love with an experienced dominatrix (Bulle Ogier) despite being baffled by her profession, then schemes to break her “free” from the lifestyle. It’s up there with Basic Instinct as one of the more nuanced, subversive movies about sexually dominant women that I can name, but it still plays directly into the dominatrix romance’s most tired cliché.
What’s funny about Maîtresse‘s narrative phoniness is that director Barbet Schroeder is obviously proud of its Authenticity in every other metric. His in-your-face, documentarian approach to Authenticity can be a little tiresome, like in moments when a horse is slaughtered & drained for butcher meat on-camera, or when the titular mistress nails one of her client’s dicks to a wooden board in full surgical detail (a stunt thankfully performed by a real-life professional, not Ogier). It’s an incredible asset to the film’s mise-en-scène, though, especially in the dominatrix’s play dungeon. Schroeder hired a professional domme to ensure the legitimacy of the kink scenes’ props & practices. The camera’s awed pans over the mistress’s tools of the trade or her clients being dressed in lingerie and ridden like horses (some, apparently, clients of the sex worker hired to oversee the shoot, getting off on the humiliation of being filmed) are electric in their documentation of vintage BDSM play. I somehow doubt that real-life dominatrix was also consulted for the story beats of the central romance, though, which is a shame.
To be fair, Maîtresse does directly challenge the macho POV of its in-over-his-head protagonist. Depardieu plays a real mouthbreather, a thug who’s visibly intimidated by the whips & leather gear he finds in the play dungeon he burgles before wooing the dominatrix who owns it. For her part, Ogier’s mistress character clearly explains to her new thief boyfriend that she is no damsel in distress, saying “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.” He attempts to “rescue” her from her comfortable, voluntary sex work routine anyway, and every drastic knucklehead action he takes on her behalf only makes her life worse. Although the story is framed through the thief’s POV, he is introduced to the audience picking his nose on his motorcycle, undercutting whatever brutish cool he could possibly convey with the same dipshit goofiness that makes the thieves in Mandibles so laughably ineffectual. Maîtresse may participate in the same “I can fix her” trope as every other dominatrix romance I’ve ever seen (Hell, for all I know it may have been responsible for creating it), but at least the central relationship in this specific example is dramatically complex.
This is essentially the story of two mismatched tops struggling to dominate each other, both barreling towards ruin because they won’t do the obvious thing and break up. I’m always a sucker for stories where characters are compelled to repeatedly do things that are obviously going to kill them just because it makes them super horny; this version is even somehow refreshingly sentimental in its romance . . . when it wants to be. Karl Lagerfeld’s fetish-fashion designs for the dominatrix’s wardrobe also afford it some wonderfully vivid imagery. Genital torture & horse deaths aside, Maîtresse is commendable. It’s only when I stop thinking about it as an individual work and consider it instead in the larger continuum of how dominatrices’ inner lives are portrayed (or ignored) on-screen that I’m disappointed it didn’t transgress in even more pointed, narrative ways.