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My Mistress brings the French BDSM underground to suburban Australia

There is a tentative marrying of French-themed chic BDSM and uniquely Australian creepy suburban angst (think Snowtown) that My Mistress hints at but never quite pulls off. It imbues the film with a sense of a missed opportunity and the strange idea that a larger, more interesting film sits just slightly off camera.

It’s not entirely fair, and does have something to do with the subject matter and the Australian setting that sit easier together than we might have thought possible, giving rise to a combination of excitement about where the film could go and a resistance to cliché inevitably found in a film like this. Teenage coming of age stories and strange elusive sexual Dominatrix stories are narratives anchored in artistic history and just in case we thought My Mistress might be dealing with something new, writer director Stephen Lance tosses in parental suicide and the drug addled whore to ensure we never stray too far from familiar territory.

And yet, there is more to Lance’s film than that, including strengths such as its small twists on familiar narratives and the surreal, corrupted Eden of the sumptuous BDSM world plonked in the middle of a very Aussie cultural landscape.

If narrative clichés exist, they are managed with a subdued maturity that gives the film a Blue Velvet view of Australian suburban life. The shots of Charlie riding home on his bike at dusk are particularly good, a sense of the ominous settled over the grey wash colouring of Queensland suburbia. It is the twisted image of Charlie’s normal life, the agitated anxiety over his safe world (there is a particularly disturbing vision of his mother watching home movies of him as a child after they’ve fought) that make the highly eroticised world of Maggie seem so healthy. Stephen Lance cleverly enlisted the assistance of screenwriter Gerard Lee (Sweetie and Top of the Lake) who must be more than partially responsible for this slant on Aussie suburbia and the combined effect of the two worlds is a revelation.

Charlie (Harrison Gilbertson) comes home one day to find his father hanging from a rope in the family garage while a party is going on inside. Charlie blames his mother (Rachael Blake) because he finds out she’s been having it off with another guy, and it seems in a very short period everything upon which he hangs his identity has been stripped away.

At the same time all this is happening, Maggie (Emmanuelle Beart), a mysterious French woman, has moved into the local empty mansion. Instantly fascinated by her and running from his troubles, Charlie peeks through her window one day to see something he did not expect. And so begins a relationship of sorts between the world-wise Dominatrix and the rudderless young man suddenly set adrift in an emotional ocean.

The nature of the sexual connection between the pair is wisely kept obscured and it is one of the film’s strengths, particularly given Charlie is sixteen. Gilbertson is strong, if a little unbelievably mature as Charlie, but there is not enough from the great Emmanuelle Beart, her aged sexual mistress coming off as a little confused by the whole thing for most of the time.

Images cast fantasy and reality spells, the blurring of which is represented in various guises such as a reference to James Dean in Gilbertson’s image, Beart’s costuming, the frequent interplay of mother and son between Charlie and Maggie, Robert Doisneau’s “Kiss” on Charlie’s wall and most of all a valkyrie painting depicting the very serious moment when pain and pleasure converge. The camera lovingly caresses the painting in the opening credits and we see it later on the wall of Maggie’s dungeon. If clichéd tropes might be a little staid, then the psychology is dead on, very accurately portraying why a non-fetishist might be attracted to this world, particularly when they are in emotional pain.

Steven Lance is another one of these advertising/music video folk transitioning to film, but don’t hold that against him. (grin)

My Mistress is a good film, beautiful to look at and filled with the promise of a fine filmmaker.

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