If you wanted to see Barbet Schroeder’s controversial Maîtresse when it was first released in Britain in 1976 you had two options: make do with a cut version on limited release in Berkshire, where the film had received an ‘X’ certificate from the local council, or become a member of one of the London club cinemas that was playing an uncensored print.
Examiners at the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) felt that certain scenes in this story of a young drifter’s love affair with a Parisian dominatrix were so extreme that it was unclassifiable without detrimental cuts. Better to let an arthouse audience see it in its entirety, albeit in private clubs, than to risk unsuspecting members of the general public becoming depraved and corrupted by its contents.
Berkshire local council, however, felt differently, electing as it did to make four major cuts: a scene of simulated urination in the face of a masochist client; the ‘punishment’ and genital stimulation of a woman; the slaughter of a horse at an abattoir; and a scene in which a client has his scrotum nailed to a piece of wood.
Maîtresse was by no means the only film portrayal of transgressive sexuality to rattle the censor in this decade. In fact it fared slightly better than Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), which was similarly confined to members-only clubs in 1978 in a shortened form, while Pasolini’s dark political satire, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), would be subject to legal challenge if shown without significant cuts, even privately. Another film with an S&M storyline that ran into censorship difficulties at this time was Just Jaeckin’s The Story of O (1975).
The limitations of judging films on subject matter instead of artistic merit preoccupied the BBFC, whose chairman James Ferman pushed for films to come under the remit of the Obscene Publications Act. This Act – which allowed works to be judged in their entirety (rather than subjecting out of context sections to a gross indecency test) – covered books but not, at this point, films.
The legislative change finally occurred in 1977 and meant potentially offensive scenes could be considered in context rather than in isolation. Subsequently, Maîtresse was reconsidered and, in 1980, passed with more lenient cuts and an ‘X’ certificate. When it was eventually re-submitted in 2003 it was finally passed uncut for the first time.
With its documentary-like coolness Schroeder’s Maîtresse was eventually recognised by the BBFC as a serious treatment of masochistic sexuality rather than as pornographic entertainment. But the film is more than an exposition of S&M practice. Despite sequences of real masochistic play (those nails are actually being driven through the epidermis by a practising dominatrix body-double for Bulle Ogier) which provoked the censor, Schroeder’s third fiction film feels like a much more redemptive exploration of themes he had covered in his first two: More (1969) and The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) (1972).
In these earlier works, characters explore the limits of experience with ambiguous results. Masochism in More is manifest through addiction to drugs and self-destruction, while the characters of The Valley push themselves to the point of probable annihilation. In contrast, Maîtresse, with its non-judgmental descent into the S&M dungeon, challenges us to recognise the depravity of the conventional world: thieves breaking into a deserted house; a butcher casually slaughtering a horse and its bloody aftermath; the sexuality of a heterosexual relationship which descends into paranoia and jealousy. The dominatrix’s contented clients are probably the most well-adjusted characters in the film.
In this extract from documentary Domestic Masochism: Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse (available in its entirety on the BFI Dual Format Edition release of the film), Patricia MacCormack, author of Cinesexuality (2008), and Edward Lamberti, Information Services Officer at the BBFC, analyse some of the film’s key scenes and discuss the moral ambiguities at the heart of this fascinating film.
The Dual Format edition of Maîtresse is out now.