I have no personal experience of sadomasochism, but if its pop-culture depictions are anything to go by, the one constant – aside from whips, chains and leather – is stilted role-play. For example, My Mistress – the debut feature of Brisbane director Stephen Lance – has us observe dominatrix Maggie (Emmanuelle Béart) leading an unnamed grown man dressed as a dog around by a leash. Their interaction is awkward to the point of ridiculousness – not aided by the muffled giggles of sixteen year-old Charlie (Harrison Gilbertson), watching surreptitiously from the confines of a coffin.
How intentional, then, is the affectless detachment of My Mistress? Is Gilbertson’s awkward, self-conscious performance due to his inexperience/inability as an actor? Is the dialogue intended to be this clumsily flowery? Is it a deliberate choice by the actor and director to convey the artificiality of the S&M relationship at the core of the film? If I’m generous enough to accept the former interpretation, then I’m not convinced it’s the right approach for the material.
My Mistress seems uncomfortable portraying the specifics of S&M, laughing at this anonymous dogman one moment then framing the central relationship of Charlie and Maggie as grand, romantic and misguided. To its credit, the film avoids simplifying the psychology of their relationship. The bond between the two is clearly supposed to be a stand-in for the kind of intense, destructive relationships that people are drawn to in their weakest moments; Charlie’s emotional nadir arising after he finds his father’s dead body hanging from the garage (“Fuck the healing process!” he screams, which could just as easily be the tagline for the film). But My Mistress also understands that there doesn’t have to be a big Freudian folderol around the commingling of pain and pleasure, recognising that, hey, some people just get their rocks off this way.
But that aforementioned discomfort stems from the film’s apparent lack of understanding of why this might be the case. While I might have no particular interest in getting ‘punished’, I can understand the appeal in an abstract way. After all, so much of sexuality is about vulnerability, so the notion of giving complete power to someone else – a stranger, even! – isn’t beyond comprehension. But My Mistress is too coy on the subject to resonate. It never comes across as sexy, or painful, or anything much, and that stiltedness is mostly to blame.
Not that the film is a total wash. There’s good stuff here: the mirroring of Charlie’s submission to his mistress with the way he dominates his downtrodden mother, or the film’s insight into the self-destructive impulse of teenage sexuality. But it reminded me of Sleeping Beauty – another stilted Australian feature aiming for eroticism – in that those ideas weren’t sufficiently fleshed out to hold interest. My Mistress suggests that Lance has a good film in him yet, but this isn’t it. It’s not painful enough to make you wish you’d sorted out a safety word beforehand, but there’s slender pleasure to be found here.