'My Mistress': Riga Review

My Mistress Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Mini Studios

My Mistress Still - H 2014

Fifty shades of ridiculous

Emmanuelle Beart cracks the whip as a sultry French dominatrix whose milkshake brings all the boys to the yard in this Australian rites-of-passage debut

A familiar motif in art-house cinema for decades, BDSM sex now seems to edging into the movie mainstream, with Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation and Peter Strickland’s delightfully kinky The Duke of Burgundy both due for release in early 2015. In his debut feature, which was partly inspired by events in his own childhood, Australian writer-director Stephen Lance aspires to show the therapeutic side of erotic role-playing and sadomasochism.

Screened at Riga International Film festival earlier this month, My Mistress is a flawed tale of teenage sexual awakening set in contemporary Queensland in northern Australia. Lance cites European masters like Pasolini, Fassbinder and Almodovar as influences, although John Waters fans will probably enjoy the more camp elements too. There is undoubtedly a niche audience for a film in which veteran French screen queen Emmanuelle Beart vamps it up in a selection of Lady Gaga-ish sex outfits. But the overall story is an unconvincing walk on the mild side, flip-flopping uneasily between tragic family drama and titillating fantasy.

Rising Australian pin-up Harrison Gilbertson (Need for Speed) stars as Charlie, an intense 16-year-old loner who returns to his bland suburban home one day to find his father has hanged himself in the garage while his mother (Rachael Blake) and her friends party obliviously in the house. Shell-shocked with grief, the angry teen blames his mother for the death, especially after he realizes she has been conducting an affair with his late father’s best friend.

Declaring the family home a “crime scene,” Charlie turns against his mother and instead pursues a hesitant friendship with Maggie (Beart), a mysterious French beauty who recently moved into a secluded manor house in the neighborhood. Maggie initially rebuffs him, but Charlie pesters and persists until she reluctantly offers him a job as her gardener. As his infatuation deepens, Charlie begins spying on his new employer, discovering she is a dominatrix who hosts S&M sessions with wealthy male clients. Naturally this boosts his carnal curiosity to a boiling point.

The fantasy of an adolescent boy receiving his sexual initiation from a worldly middle-aged woman has been a cinematic staple since before The Graduate, reaching a soft-porn nadir in the early 1980s with racy trash like Private Lessons and Class. Lance begins My Mistress in a jarringly dark place, which suggests a more unconventional movie lies ahead, but ultimately it seems he cannot resist the allure of cartoonish archetype over more emotionally messy, psychologically complex drama. He even gives Maggie a morally unimpeachable alibi for her scandalously oversexualized Frenchness, just in case conservative viewers are feeling prudish and judgmental. Beneath her raunchy femme fatale surface lies the MILF of human kindness.

My Mistress is partially saved from its own muddled intentions by an undertow of high camp, which may or may not be accidental. Looking vaguely post-human due to cosmetic surgery, Beart sportingly plays up to every stereotype of the pouting, chain-smoking, poetry-spouting Gallic temptress, winking at the audience just enough to show she knows she is slumming it in Lance’s masturbatory memoir. She also gets to model a parade of fabulous fetish outfits designed by Angus Strathie, who won an Oscar for Moulin Rouge! These scenes of spanking and whipping, latex and lube are actually the best in the movie, stylishly choreographed and beautifully lit.

Alas, when Lance attempts emotional gravitas, the story falls apart. The feverish attraction between Charlie and Maggie lacks any erotic chemistry. The rules she lays down for their brief entanglement, and the final three-way showdown that follows, feel clumsily contrived and make scant dramatic sense. The soundtrack is also an ungainly mess, all jaunty fairground waltzes for the S&M scenes and cloying orchestral solemnity at other times.

My Mistress is not without its kinky charms, especially in its artfully staged soft-porn tableaux, but it barks out the safe word long before getting into anything remotely transgressive. A conventional rites-of-passage story at heart, it promises Blue Velvet but settles for being Risky Business.

Production companies: Mini Studios, Dust Bunny Productions

Cast: Emmanuelle Beart, Harrison Gilbertson, Rachael Blake, Socratis Otto

Director: Stephen Lance

Screenwriters: Stephen Lance, Gerard Lee

Producers: Leanne Tonkes, Stephen Kearney

Cinematographer: Geoffrey Simpson

Editor: Jill Bilcock

Costume designer: Angus Strathie

Casting director: Ben Parkinson

BDSM and fetish advisor: Andrea Silva

Sales company: LevelK, Copenhagen

No rating, 104 minutes