Although other films had previously been made in France about sadomasochism, including Pierre-Alain Jolivet's rarely-seen Fernando Arrabal adaptation Le Grand Ceremonial (1968) aka Weird Weirdo, film critic Jean-Pierre Bouyxou's experimental underground short Satan bouche un coin (1968), and homo artsploitation auteur Jacques Scandelari’s debauched de Sade adaptation La philosophie dans le boudoir (1971) aka Beyond Love and Evil, these films are superlatively sensational works that merely use S&M to shock and titillate. Undoubtedly, one of the most shocking aspects of Maîtresse is its innate lack of sensationalism and almost detached objectivity in terms of depicting the strictly professional relationship between a dick-nailing and ass-whipping Madame and her mostly morbidly masochistic customers. Not surprisingly, despite Schroeder going out of his way to depict them in as an objective and ‘respectful’ manner as possible, the masochists still come off seeming like pathetic sexual cripples that would have surely been thrown in a bog by their ancient ancestors, but I digress.
At the beginning of the film, Olivier and his swarthy conman comrade Mario (André Rouyer) visit various apartments under the false pretense of selling art books as a means to covertly raid various flats and steal valuable objects. As a very hospitable hood-with-a-heart-of-gold, Olivier almost immediately expresses dismay with Mario's criminal plan, but he is also not the sort of guy that likes to let down a friend and thus goes along with the rather stupid scheme. Upon knocking on one door, they are greeted by a semi-hysterical Ariane, who begs them to help her with her plumbing lest her apartment become completely flooded with water. Upon talking to Ariane, Olivier and Mario are delighted to discover that “the old woman downstairs is on vacation” and thus seize the opportunity to rob the supposedly empty apartment. Rather unfortunately (or rather fortunately for Olivier as things turn out), Ariane was lying, as the apartment is actually a sort of secret makeshift S&M dungeon, so naturally Olivier and Mario are somewhat bewildered when they discover bondage gear, torture devices, gimp masks, and even an imprisoned male slave in the lavishly decorated Art Deco (anti)pleasure-dome. Of course, things get even more bizarre when a secret door opens in the ceiling and Ariane, who is sporting a savagely dapper dominatrix outfit, proceeds to walk down a set of stairs that emerges from said door. Needless to say, the two crooks find themselves imprisoned when Ariane’s loyal Doberman appears out of nowhere and begins growling at them, but Olivier soon discovers that he has finally become trapped in a prison that he won’t mind living in. A woman that lives two very different lives in two very different yet symbolically secretly conjoined apartments that represent a sort of bourgeois heaven and hell, Ariane is a bewildering bitch that completely baffles poor philistine Olivier, yet he is a man that knows what he likes and he instantly takes a special liking to the eloquently eccentric dominatrix dame.
For Olivier and Ariane, it is virtually love-at-first-sight. After paying off Mario to leave him alone with money that he was going to use pay for a date, Olivier immediately takes Ariane out on a dinner date at a fancy restaurant where they incessantly shamelessly flirt while drinking tons of wine. During the date, the two reveal some of their more glaring flaws to one another, with Oliver confessing, “I don’t really have a past” and Ariane somewhat disturbingly admitting, “You shouldn’t ask me questions because either I lie or I don’t answer them” and “I’m not the cautious type.” As two individuals with uniquely unsavory pasts, it is no surprise that the two new eccentric lovebirds are easily able to overlook each others’ flaws, at least at first. Indeed, Ariane does not even mind having to pay for the dinner date that Olivier asked her to go out on. In fact, she is completely flattered when she discovers that Olivier used the dinner date money to payoff Mario so that they could be alone with one another. Needless to say, the two fuck that night and Olivier even goes so far as to get Ariane all hot in bothered by violently grabbing her and threatening, “I could kill you now if I wanted. Just like that. One squeeze and you’re dead.” Unfortunately for their relationship, Olivier eventually begins to adopt a more passive and masochistic role as the romance develops while Ariane begins to lose her dominatrix talents, thus eventually leading to serious conflict.
Seeming to have subconsciously realized that he has made a serious mistake that will most likely jeopardize his relationship, Olivier immediately gets violently drunk and roams around public until the morning as if he is afraid of going back to Ariane. In a symbolic scene where he reveals his identification with slaughtered horses and, in turn, sense of victim-hood, Olivier pays an early morning visit to an abattoir and then subsequently buys three horse steaks that he eats in an almost ritualistic fashion as if he is attempting to consume the brutalization and victimization of the dead animals. Indeed, despite his prole style alpha-male talents when it comes to kicking ass and taking names, Olivier now feels like a slave and acts accordingly in a strangely masochistic fashion as a virtual ‘kept man’ that is dependent on a dame that seems to value her degenerate job more than him. Clearly empathizing with the brutally slaughtered horses, Olivier seems to feel like a helpless victim and a hapless cog in a metaphysical machine of assembly-line murder. In what ultimately becomes a pathetic self-fulfilling prophecy, Olivier almost seems to have paid Gautier a rather rude visit in a subconscious attempt to completely sabotage his relationship, or so the viewer inevitably assumes.
When Olivier finally manages to flee the apartment after being bombarded with a quite venomous verbal assault that might have completely spiritually castrated a weaker man, Ariane also begins to cry, thus leaving her with a somewhat aesthetically displeasing combination of blood, sweat, and tears on her face. As the viewer assumes, Ariane’s nasty behavior was at least partially an act that was meant to scare Olivier away as it is apparent that Gautier demanded that the male protagonist be kicked out of the apartment. Despite being treated as an emotional punching bag, Olivier is not the kind of guy that is going to accept to defeat when loved is involved, so he immediately goes to his local bank, completely empties his bank account, and then puts the cash inside an envelope that reads, “I love you.” Unfortunately, when Olivier gets back to Ariane’s apartment, he discovers that his beloved is gone and that a couple of hired goons are moving her personal belongs out of the place. As he quite nicely explains to them himself, Olivier does not want to beat the shit out of the goons, but they refuse to tell him where Ariane located is so he beats the shit out of both of them, including an erratic knife-wielding pansy.
Although I don't want to knock Lynch's classic film, but the romance in Maîtresse makes the sadomasochistic love affair between Jeffrey Beaumont and Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet (1986) seem like an absurdist male-fantasy by comparison. Additionally, compared to Schroeder's film, which wallows in a sort of radical yet understated realism, Luis Buñuel's masterful S&M flick Belle de Jour (1967) almost seems like an emotionally fraudulent feminist fantasy. Of course, what both Schroeder and Buñuel's films reveal is that virtually all women are plagued by indecision and are constantly torn between wanting a man that instantly can sop their panties and a sexually banal beta-provider-male that can inflate their bank accounts. Either way, innate hypergamic instincts dictates that most women will always find something to complain about and the only place you will find real happy endings to romances is in movies, even in strange sadomasochistic arthouse ones like Maîtresse.