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Barbet Schroeder has always been interested in human obsessions and the dynamic of relationships, but when he got the idea to make Maîtresse he added something rather strange: Comedy. If you have never seen his infamous 1975 film, you should be aware of several things prior to watching it. The first of which is that this is essentially a very dark comedy about an unlikely love between a professional Dominatrix and a somewhat dim-witted would-be-thug.  The second is that it is probably the closest a film has come to capturing the true idea of BDSM as something more than a simple desire — for Ariane (Bulle Ogier) and her clients, it is a true obsession. While she might attempt to keep her professional life hidden in the strange world isolated in a cloistered series of rooms beneath her apartment, it becomes clear that this world is more than a way to earn money. Elements of her sadism have already worked their way into her sunny world.

Stylish lady with some secrets... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Stylish lady with some secrets…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Like her clients, this is an obsession meant to be hidden from the rest of the world to see. The third is that Maîtresse is a very graphic film. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The final and most important general statement about Maîtresse is that it is a highly artistic and well-crafted film. While it does not deserve to be listed or thought of as Shock Cinema, it is a most certainly highly provocative work. Schroeder is an intellectually restrained artist, but he is most certainly putting himself in the role of provocateur when it comes to this unforgettable and odd movie.

When Barbet Schroeder began production of Maîtresse in 1974 he knew he was creating a provocative film, but he had no idea just how difficult it would be to secure distribution in 1975. It would be more than a couple of years before this infamous film would be seen much at all. The film was essentially banned and censored for over six years after the initial debut. The UK would prove the toughest nut to crack. Interestingly it was not so much due to the exploration into the world of a French Dominatrix which included graphic depictions of BDSM activities, nor was it actually due to anything tied up in fetish and kink and it certainly wasn’t the horrific visit to a Paris horse meat slaughterhouse. The bottomline reason Schroeder’s film was refused release into the UK was because it featured the back view of a vulva.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975

To give the British Board of Film Classification their due — they were smart enough to actually state that the film’s refusal was related to the “excessive” degrees of fetishism. The real reason BBFC denied release to the film was not because a person was being whipped, it was because the audience could see her vulva. The board did not mind that the audience could see a penis being severely mistreated. They were upset that the man seemed to enjoy having his genitals mistreated.

Maîtresse was screened and received a limited release in the US. The distributor assigned the film an X-rating on its own. So limited was the release that very few film critics actually reviewed it. The New York Times quite liked it. But the film became notorious with relatively few people having ever actually seen it. That all changed when The Criterion Collection remastered and released it to DVD in 2004.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Criterion Collection, 2004

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Criterion Collection, 2004

While the uncensored theatrical cut of Maîtresse had been released to the UK via DVD starting in 2003, the transfers were not solid. Under their Flipside Editions, The British Film Institute released it to Blu-ray in 2012. Blu quality enhanced, the BFI release is actually superior to the Criterion Collection pressing. There has been some very loose rumors that Criterion may give the film another image/sound boost to re-issue to Blu-ray, but it is rather unlikely. The film’s graphic scene filmed in an actual horse slaughterhouse is truly horrific to watch. This scene is most likely intended to act as a sort of metaphor for a powerful beast being reduced to a powerless victim ultimately utilized as food. The scene arrives in the story when the leading man is feeling powerless and emasculated.

Even playing "footsie" takes a turn... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Even playing “footsie” takes a turn…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Note: Even by 1975 horse meat had already become a taboo form of food in more than a couple of countries. However it should be noted that while it has dramatically shifted away from favor, there are still butcher shops in France specifically reserved for the sale of this meat. All the same this is an alarming scene that will most likely put off a good number of people. As an FYI, Schroeder’s use of the footage is almost tame when compared to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s use of Goethe recitation as the audience is led through the horrors of a slaughterhouse in 1978’s In a Year of 13 Moons. Fassbinder employed this form of human brutality to create a metaphor for fascism and despair. Unlike Schroeder’s movie,  Fassbinder’s film is not even remotely a comedy. Still both films carry a repugnant reputation for screening graphic screening of animal slaughter. Consider yourself warned.

All the same, it is annoying that the Criterion transfer is inferior to the one released by BFI Flipside Edition.

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer. Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 BFI Flipside, 2012

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer.
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
BFI Flipside, 2012

While one might expect a 1975 French film to be dated, it really isn’t. Even the clothing is not particularly 1970’s tacky. Let’s not forget that Karl Lagerfeld was in charge of costume design. …And the line between S&M to Lagerfeld is fairly short in distance.

And speaking of Sadomasochism, Maîtresse is one of the few films to actually craft a realistic depiction of this subculture. While many speak of Sadomasochism, the reality is that a true Sadist is not going to derive much pleasure from role-play. And while one might think of a Masochist as passive or willing victim, the true master of S&M role-play is always the Masochist. In other words, there is a very dark side to the games that many adults play. In Maîtresse the role playing is most definitely in action, but the games are being played with the rules loose and usually hidden. During the first half of the film it would appear that  Ariane takes no particular pleasure in what she does in the lair beneath her bright apartment, but Schroeder slowly begins to reveal aspects of her true nature as the film moves forward.

Going down below to a domestic torture garden... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Going down below to a domestic torture garden…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Ariane seems to take true delight in feeding a collection of venus fly trap plants. Her high-scale bathtub has been crafted to include a bottom chamber that she has filled with water snakes or eels who feed off small fish which she her maid/assistant pours into the mix. And of course as the battle of the sexes ensues we see examples of her need to remain firmly in the position of dominance.

Tighten up the gimp... Bulle Ogier & Client Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tighten up the gimp…
Bulle Ogier & Client
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The film’s perspective belongs to leading man of the story. Gérard Depardieu’s Olivier appears to be a harmless sort of guy, but it only takes a small opportunity and he is ready to take up the grift as burglar. And it only takes another moment or two before we realize that this burly young man is a criminal. The film’s plot begins as Olivier and a pal break into what they think is an empty Parisian apartment. Like voyeurs, we follow these knuckleheads into a creepy dark space. With only a flashlight to provide limited perspective, we understand within a few seconds that this is no ordinary apartment. The small light reveals gimp masks, gas masks, latex & rubber suits, a hanging noose, a sinister looking dental chair, something like a torture rack, loads of odd surgical type equipment, dildos, baby bottles, diapers, a wide variety of torture tools and a terrified naked man shivering in a dog pen.  This might all read a bit funnier than it is. I first saw this movie in Cambridge back in the 1990’s and it was and remains a genuinely creepy opening sequence. Soon these two thugs find themselves handcuffed together and to a radiator as Bulle Ogier’s Ariane tends to her clients.

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

This is a filmmaker’s movie. Gerard Depardieu is well cast in the type of role for which he was best known in his youth — a sort of primally sexy gentle giant. It is really through Olivier‘s eyes that the audience sees the film. While this man is far from innocent, he clearly has no understanding of the world to which he has entered. But it is both comical and interesting that he finds himself deeply attracted to Ariane. His desire for her begins as she one-up’s both he and his pal by managing to cuff them together with no hope of escape. His attraction only builds as she offers him a chance to make some money and leads him further into the dark corners of her domestic torture garden. As they approach a man dressed in female bondage gear, she demands that the client get on all fours. She straddles him and positions Olivier directly in front of the masochist’s face. Olivier looks more curious than shocked. She unzips her burglar’s fly, pulls out his penis and demands that he urinate in the client’s face. Olivier‘s eyes never leave those of Ariane. As we hear the urine release he shares a passionate kiss with her. Suddenly this brute of a man is in love.

And now we begin your punishment... A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

And now we begin your punishment…
A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

After a night of what appears to be romance funded by Ariane, the two lie in bed. There are no professions of love, but it is clear it is there. Schroeder’s screenplay and Bulle Ogier’s careful performance require no words for the audience to understand that much of her attraction / fondness for Olivier is grounded in his mix of dull intellect, brutish but placid assertions of dominance. Of course the deal-sealer for Ariane is that this man is unabashedly almost worshiping in his adoration. There is also no need for discussion regarding Olivier‘s confusion regarding the downstairs world of his love’s professional life. All Depardieu need to do is offer a glance and we know that he is even more confused than those of us in the audience.

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment...

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment… Bulls Ogier / Wealthy Clients / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When Ariane essentially tricks him into visiting a friend in the country, he has no idea that she is leading him into a Dominatrix scenario involving a group of wealthy devotees. Confused, unsure and fearful of being judged as less than a man Olivier agreed to remove his belt and whip the pretty and only female player in the chateau. It is clear that he simply does not understand why a tough whipping would provide pleasure. Eager to demonstrate his abilities to his new lover, he opts to softly tease the masochist’s vulva. Of course this only demonstrates his misunderstanding of this type of desire. The wealthy clients are amused as is Ariane. But Olivier and the audience are confused and worried that he is being used and reduced to some sort of walking joke.

When I saw Maîtresse for the first time back in the 1990’s I had been informed that it was a dark comedy. At this time it was hard for me to accept it as comedy. It seemed to me that the film was aiming far deeper than one anticipates from the genre. Despite my own desire to interpret the movie in a different way there were elements that simply did not seem to fit the action on the screen.

Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified...

Néstor Almendros captures our Mistress in perfect frame to emerge with a halo for the man who will become obsessed. Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified… Bulls Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Carlos D’Alessio’s musical score seemed odd. It is a rather charming bit of work that never fits into the world we and Olivier are exploring. In addition some of the darkest moments contained within the movie have no musical accompaniment. Seeing the film again after it had been added to The Criterion Collection, the comedy of Maîtresse hit me. Certainly not a comic experience that generates laughs as much as amusement — this is more a sense of bemusement. This is, of course, a French film. I love French cinema, but no one else presents comedy quite like the French. This level of dark comedy or comédie de l’ cruels has become more familiar outside of French cinema in the past decade. John Magary’s recent brilliant independent American film, The Mend, presents an incisive and rage-filled study of two brothers as the sort of dark comedy one might expect from France. Serious studies of humanity taking a turn toward the comical is not so odd to most of us anymore. Despite all of the transgressions and darker elements of identity, Maîtresse is most certainly a comedy.

Watching love's persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend.

Watching love’s persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend. Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

A key to understanding Maîtresse is to know that nothing we see is eroticized. This is not an erotic film.

When we are given glimpses into the Maitresse’s world of punishment and humiliation it is either directly related to Olivier‘s sneaking around peaking or listening. Schroeder spent a good deal of time researching the subject matter of the film as he felt no connection to the world of S&M. Much of Bulle Ogier’s character is based on an actual dominatrix. He gained her trust and she agreed to allow she and several of her clients to be used in the film itself. Long before the idea of digital effects existed, Schroeder carefully placed the actual dominatrix in relation to his actress/wife’s positions. The actual members of the 1970’s Parisian BDSM Underground wear masks to protect their identity, but they are willfully accepting their mistresses’ punishments. All is filmed to make it look as if Ogier is the one applying nails, needles and other manipulations. Filmed without typical movie lighting or other stylings, these transgressive acts are presented with only the sounds that were occurring at the time of filming. The result is often jarring and more than a little shocking, but never eroticized.

Nothing is ever explained beyond the most limited of discussion. Like Olivier, we are left with only what we see and might already understand separate from the film. Unlike Olivier, we are hopefully not quite so simple in our thinking and reasoning. And let’s hope we are not male chauvinist pigs. Olivier has a deep-seated need to dominate his woman. Having grown into a world of cruelty and crime, he has no trouble formulating the idea that his girl is a prostitute in need of a strong pimp. He wants the role of her pimp. And he wants to find a way to help her earn even more money. Because it is all about money. Right?!? 

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it... Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it…
Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tragically for Olivier, he is unable to grasp that Ariane needs no protecting and certainly no pimp. Ariane never states an opinion, but it is clear that she does not identify as a prostitute and would never even consider the idea of pimp in her existence. As Olivier becomes more and more obsessed with understanding what Ariane does and why people pay her to do it — he becomes even more determined to know all of her secrets. The identity of a certain person constantly being mentioned in relation to money either with her maid or on one of her two phones consumes Olivier.

It is at this point of the story that we fully begin to understand the depth of Ariane‘s own perverse sadistic urges. It would not take much for her to simply explain it all to Olivier, but she has far too much fun watching him struggle for his grounding and fret over the details of her life.

Even when Olivier’s tendencies toward domestic abuse begin to flare up, she maintains her sense of control.

He's just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now?

He’s just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now? Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When he puts his huge hands around her slender throat she plays it off as if a game. Poor Olivier doesn’t even pick up that he has failed to scare her. Later when he finally pushes things too far and our Maîtresse has had enough, she head-butts Olivier so hard blood begins to pour from his nose. Clearly shocked by her strength, his reaction is to attempt to warn Ariane that she too has been harmed. He is concerned. Ariane is unbothered by the self-damage inflicted by her head-butting. She is seething with anger.

It is the dim-witted Olivier who is emotionally crushed. This is not the first time we have seen this rough and huge man fall to pieces over his girl.  Control and cruelty are needs and that refuse to stay in that dark cave of torture secretly adjoined to her private home. These needs are not being fully satisfied by respecting most of her clients’ wishes and safe words. A Sadist wants real control and a victim. She is happy to play along with Olivier‘s limited view of women for the pleasure his pain provides.

She may look the part of angel, but this aspect is in appearance only.

Another key scene involves some personal and rather rough role-play between Ariane and Olivier. Schroeder wisely shoots this scene in a particularly ambiguous way. It looks like a violent public fight between the two characters as reality with the looming threat of rape. When the two end up in a garden shed of an elderly woman we hear Ariane‘s screams. As the poor old woman rushes to come to the aide of the petit blond woman, Olivier emerges with a switchblade pointed to kill. When Ariane walks out of the shed she is still pulling up her skirt. We might expect that she would feel empathy for the elder woman, but instead she merely leans into Olivier and mockingly suggests he leave the poor “old dear” alone. She skips away without even waiting to see what Olivier might do.

We never actually  know if this was a bit of role-playing or a real scenario that Ariane has manifested / navigated for some sadistic fun.

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man. Bulle Ogier  Maîtresse  Barbet Schroeder, 1975  Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man.
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Despite the dark elements of the on-screen actions, this is a story about the battle of the sexes. It is also an odd 1970’s twist on Feminisim. The key word here is “odd.” In many ways it almost seems a mistake that Barbet Schroeder opted to sculpt a very twisted romantic comedy from the BDSM clay of his story. There are so many aspects of Bulle Ogier’s Ariane it seems a bit of a waste of a great actress that she is unable to explore them. As I’ve stated several times, not much is ever explained about the title character.

Forever lingering with mystery...

Forever lingering with mystery… Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The subplot of Ariane‘s situation is only mentioned in passing. I’m not sure I even fully noticed it upon my first viewing some 20 years ago, but it is wrought with dramatic potential. La Maîtresse is the mother of an elementary school age child.  An older gentleman (who may or may not be the child’s father) appears to have taken custody of the child. We may not know the full story here, but it would appear that Ariane is fine with this arrangement and most likely has intended it to be this way. When we see her with her child she clearly feels a stronger bond to her Doberman Pinscher. A beloved pet she has named Texas and claims to have trained to kill upon demand. We do not know if this is true, but it seems likely to be an accurate claim. Her young son appears to attempt to gain his mother’s attention, but Ariane is far more interested with Texas. When the boy walks off with his guardian/father, Ariane appears bored, but fixated on the dog. We never learn the name of her son, but she is more than happy to sneak away and join Olivier on a very strange drive in which the battle for power takes a surprising turn.

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?!

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?! Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse is an uncomplicated film about some very complicated people. The choice to keep it unexplained and unexplored is intentional. And as it turns out this was a very clever and wise decision. Maîtresse pulls us in just deep enough to make us squirm but never so far out that we need to grasp for air. It also prevents the film from slipping into a psychological realm that would ultimately prove disappointing.

Why?

Well sometimes life’s complications and the obsessions to which it leads are too murky to actually articulate.

Matty Stanfield, 1.28.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if John Carpenter had filmed his own script of Eyes of Laura Mars. It is a rather silly question as he did not film his own script. Instead that duty was assigned to the skilled filmmaker, Irvin Kershner. The only director bold enough to stand his ground against the likes of George Lucas while shooting his film for the Star Wars franchise and the director who was able to assist Barbra Streisand tone it all down to play a very believable housewife in a very surreal experimental film of the early 1970’s, Up The Sandbox.

"And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever I can't escape. One minute's so sincere. Then you completely turn against me. And I'm afraid..." An Iconic Movie Poster Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978

“And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever
I can’t escape. One minute’s so sincere.
Then you completely turn against me. And I’m afraid…”
An Iconic Movie Poster
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978

Up until 1977 he had never directed a horror film. It is clear that the under-appreciated film artist was less interested in the terror aspects of Carpenter’s script than in using it to focus on the problematic trend of mixing sex with violence as a form of subversion or perverse eroticism. One merely has to glance at only one of Rebecca Blake’s photographs taken for the film to understand that she is carefully constructing slick photographs in the vein of Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin. Interestingly, these provocative and aggressively misogynistic photographs point toward where Karl Lagerfeld would be headed later on.

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph | Rebecca Blake

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph | Rebecca Blake

John Carpenter’s original screenplay is fairly simple: A Post-Feminist (???) fashion photographer takes controversial photographs which capture not only the erotic elements of the female form in stylish clothing, but acts of brutal violence and murder. Violence and murder usually aimed at women.  Her work is highly profitable and has made her a bit of a celebrity. As a coffee table book collecting some of her most infamous photographs hits the stores, people close to her begin to be murdered in horrible ways that always culminate with their eyes being gouged out.

Even more disturbing, the photographer begins to lose her own vision only to be replaced with the POV of the killer for the duration of each murder. Amping up the horror is the fact that the pop culture princess of fashion photography discovers that all of her photographs mimic a number of brutal and confidential police shots of actual murders. Hence, it would appear that Ms. Mars is somehow psychically linked to a serial killer. It is the psychotic madness of a killer who has been inspiring her art. Art that many are eager to purchase and admire.

Eventually, the killer sets his sites on Laura Mars herself. As the killer tries to kill her she is put in the chilling position of POV limitation — she can only see herself as the killer goes after her. Essentially blind with only disorienting and panicked visions of her own body as target, she is a prisoner of the killer’s eyes ...and her own.

Taking aim... Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Taking aim…
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

John Carpenter deserves a great deal of credit with coming up with an original and scary concept. It is unlikely he viewed as any sort of cultural or pop art commentary, but the circumstance of the imagined situation opens that door. Enter the decision to hire Irvin Kershner as the director. By securing the respected film director, the already infamous producer of the project was able to seal a deal with Faye Dunaway to play the lead character. In 1977, this was a casting coup. Dunaway was at the height of her cinematic power in the mid to late 1970’s. A beautiful and respected Academy Award winning actress, Ms. Dunaway was sought after.

Initially Jon Peters was rumored to have wanted to talk his then Life Partner, Barbra Streisand, into taking the role. The script was too violent and dark for Streisand’s taste. She did agree to sing a theme song which turned out to be a surprisingly rock-driven song. The esteemed Conrad Hall was rumored to be first choice to serve as the film’s cinematographer, but Kershner wanted Victor J. Kemper. He got him.

Several gorgeous models were hired to serve as models and actors. Tommy Lee Jones was secured for the leading male love interest. And thanks to a large paycheck, several respected actors were cast in supporting roles — most notably Brad Dourif and Raul Julia. This was an A List Production out of the gate.

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak. Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak.
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

When the results of the finished film screened in 1978, viewers were presented with a cinematic cornucopia of ideas and images. Some of these worked. Others failed. Mixed together — Eyes of Laura Mars became a largely mixed experience for film critics and an often vexing one for the audience. The film was a hit. Though filled with tension, the movie failed to actually be scary.

While Laura Mars‘ photographs are violently and sexually graphic, the film is surprisingly restrained. Most certainly the violence and amount of nudity earned the film an R rating, but there was a loopy sort of immature logic holding the film together.

Some did find the movie disturbing. Some found it to be a fun ride with more than a few unexpected twists. Others were just left a bit confused.

A male's smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

A male’s smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

37 years later Eyes of Laura Mars continues to entertain. Sadly, much of the entertainment grows out of unintentional camp.

This is not to say that this odd bit of big-budget 1970’s filmmaking does not hold some merit. But the film’s merits are easily over-powered by the strange plot, Dunaways’s soap-opera like turn and some deeply campy “stupid model” moments. The movie is a fun, pretty and ungrounded mess. And over the past decade it has developed a sizable cult following.

Most view Eyes one of those “So Bad It’s Great” cinematic guilty pleasures. While I can understand ascribing this uncomfortable thriller to that genre, I’ve never been certain that it should be regarded as a bad film.

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

I grew up in a fairly small town in Texas. We were not too far from Houston, but we did not always get movies when they “opened.” More often than not, movies arrived to our town several weeks or a month after the movie had already been in circulation. This was the case with Eyes. It opened late into its run at our fairly new mall cineplex.

My father had no understanding of what was or wasn’t appropriate for a child. He took me with him to see this movie. The woman who sold us out tickets already knew me as the kid who she would often pull out of a movie to ask where my parents were. I’m not sure if it was before or after the time my father took me to see Eyes of Laura Mars, but this theater manager pitched a fit when my father took me to see Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Hurry! I Need more film! I'll push my skirt up further while you take care of that! Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Hurry! I Need more film! I’ll push my skirt up further while you take care of that!
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Her attempts to prevent my father from taking his little boy to see adult movies always failed. Mr. Goodbar was a traumatic experience. But Eyes was not one. In fact nothing I saw made my jaw drop or caused me any real confusion.

The thing I most remember about seeing this movie was that my father was forced to really get his shit together because no one was admitted after the first ten minutes of the movie’s start. My father had the annoying habit of arriving at the middle of a movie and then staying to see the first half at the next screening. But he had to arrive on time for Eyes of Laura Mars. I also remember noting that he was truly glued to the screen. It seemed like the casually naked models and the violent photographs interested him.

I was not scared by the movie. While I had not yet become educated in filmmaking, I did know who John Carpenter was — and I was frustrated that the Halloween dude wasn’t making a movie he wrote.

"This is Lulu & Michele! We're not home so go to Hell! But if you're not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!" Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

“This is Lulu & Michele! We’re not home so go to Hell! But if you’re not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!”
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars is not a truly bad movie. It may not be scary, but it has its share of intense moments. It also offers a rather lucid capture of 1970’s NYC and its fashion scene.

Sony did issue the film to DVD, but the HD download currently available via iTunes is far superior to the non-remastered print that the ever-cheap Sony put on DVD. One major thing about the Sony DVD is that it features a film-length commentary from the late Irvin Kershner. In that commentary he speaks of not having had much knowledge of the fashion world at that time. He was surprised when he heard female models talking, disrobing, doing drugs and giggling like school girls.

A staunch liberal, Kershner was also more than a little repulsed by discovering that there seemed to be a misogynistic attitude toward women by an industry devoted to women as their focal demographic. This concerning misogyny would change the film’s tone. No new comer to the Sexual Revolution, he was very much surprised by the attitude of the female models he encountered as well as what he saw as The Studio 54 Culture. Clearly this is what motivated Kershner.

Oh, the model's life and selling cars while being abused and killed... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photography by Rebecca Blake

Oh, the model’s life and selling fashion! No prob with nudity or killing or being killed. But they do have problems with the color of the dresses… Sex, violence and Misogyny Sells Clothing!
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photography by Rebecca Blake

At the time of the film’s release more than a few critics were annoyed by the ample use of casual nudity and the constant stream of violence against women. Kershner explains that he didn’t need to include all the nudity and explicitness of the faked photographs, but these aspects of the plot tied to the world of fashion greatly disturbed and interested him. These aspects seemed to signal that this once simple slasher movie could serve as something a bit deeper in the form of societal and cultural commentary. Or so it seemed.

It wasn’t so much the clothes that the photographers were wanting to capture as the sexuality of the models. And the models were more than happy to comply. Sex was their commodity and it was taking on a sinister tone from Kershner’s perspective. The non-actor models didn’t need to be asked or walked-thru to be nude for the film. They treated their scenes as they would a provocative fashion spread. Off came the clothing and on went the vapid conversing and drug-taking.

Kershner saw and attempted to capture a world in which the female model had no issue with being nude or posing as a victim, but their psyches were challenged when they had to wear “pink” or any color that they didn’t like. Carpenter’s original screenplay was re-crafted to “realistically” capture this world. A intriguing idea in theory does not always manage to fully morph onto the screen.

A lovely book for the late 1970's coffee table? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A lovely book for the late 1970’s coffee table?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Kershner was very careful not to discuss too much about Faye Dunaway. It is no secret that she became frustrated with the making of the film but also the way in which it was promoted. This was really the first film in which Dunaway failed to connect to the production.

A deeply stylized and theatrical actor, Faye Dunaway always had a 1940’s sensibility about her — hence her success in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Towering Inferno and Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. She had managed to take her style of acting to a whole new level for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network and won the Oscar.

As Laura Mars Faye Dunaway appears to be a bit lost. It often feels as if she is fighting against what Kershner wanted. Continually dressed in flowing robes or gowns, Laura Mars seems to edge toward Gothica. She is power-dressed with purpose and that purpose is not to be sexy.

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models? Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models?
Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Surrounded by The Beautiful Elite of the modeling world, Dunaway is constantly subverting her assigned wardrobe to a new purposes. It seems almost comical to watch her photographing a fake car crash tragedy with her models either playing dead or cat-fighting in undies and minks. Kershner’s commentary avoids much discussion, but it seems an odd choice that Dunaway’s Laura Mars opts to hike up her skirt and do a Old-School Hollywood leg reveal as she shoots her pictures.

Decidedly not sexy, it just seems uncomfortable. Dunaway strictly refused any nudity in her love scenes with Tommy Lee Jones. But one suspects she desperately wanted in on some of the semi-nude cat fights she was left to “photograph.” The audience is less interested in Dunaway’s Laura as they are in the barely clothed fighting beauties amidst the wreckage.

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura's eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura’s eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars gets the late 1970’s NYC Fashion World down correctly. The clothes feel and look very much from the 1977 era. The fashions being photographed look legit. And the wealthy photographer may edge toward the dramatic, but her clothing is clearly upscale and in style.

Kershner also captures the feel and look of the true 1977 NYC. Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle and the Fashion District look like they are from another reality compared to now. This is most assuredly an on location shoot. The grime and grit plays a key role to the film. And although he did not shoot there, one of the movie’s early moments features a PR party given in honor of Laura Mars‘ work and new book that could easily be mistaken for a Studio 54 event.

At this event, Kershner makes no excuses for the vapidity of models like Lulu and Michelle, but both Darlanne Fluegel and Lisa Taylor are comically believable in their roles. It is in this early scene we are given a glimpse into their characters’ personalities.

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura's killing portrait... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura’s killing portrait…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The director is also to be credited for showing the importance of gay male culture within the world of Laura Mars without falling into homophobia. Little is actually articulated, but we know these men are gay. Rene Auberjonois delivers a solid performance as Laura’s close friend and business manager. We not meant to make fun of him.

And while both Raul Julia and Brad Dourif are wasted, they put forward great work here. Tommy Lee Jones is also strong except when pitted against Dunaway’s convulsively confusing turns. Jones is playing the role as realistically as possible, but he often finds himself in bad soap opera territory when kissing or making love to his leading lady. This is not his fault. Dunaway’s work here often feels like that of an insecure fading movie star who is afraid of losing her place at the table. Sadly Kershner didn’t seem to be strong enough to talk her down. This is of particular surprise given his track record for getting the best out of his actors. It is safe to say that Dunaway’s finest work has been given under infamous duress with tempermental directors.

Roman Polanski or Barbet Schroeder anyone?

Art crime? Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Art crime?
Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

While it was most definitely a fail on the part of Kershner to not better execute the horror of a film that was obviously intended to be a slasher flick, I doubt we would really remember this film if it had followed that path.

It should be noted that one of the few genuinely creepy moments in the movie is when we are limited to Laura Mars‘ POV which is trapped in the POV of the serial killer who is chasing her at full speed with intent to kill. Arte Kane’s musical score is manically-pitched and when edited into this threatening but non-violent scene, it does illicit a good deal of tension.

Even still, there is a major bit of let down when acts of actual real-time murders happen. Thanks to the musical score and the trippy use of POV there is some suspense, but the cinematic pay-off in these slasher scenes feel like something you might have seen on Charlie’s Angels.

Well, minus the nudity.

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance! Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance!
Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

This is very little gore in this film’s violence. Of course the film’s Big Reveal which Columbia Studios built up by closing ticket sales after the first ten minutes of the movie, has never seemed at all shocking to me. Even as a child I had figured out the identity of the killer before the film decides to reveal it.

Even still, it is a nightmarish situation that is interesting when compared to the “fashion art” our heroine has been crafting with her stylishly perched skinny leg and handy Nikon camera. This is perhaps the film’s most winning turn of horror — it is the film’s use of murder as fashion and violent death as eroticism that leaves a queasy sort of taste on the cinematic palate.

Killing to sell a car... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Killing to sell a car…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Irvin Kershner’s take on Carpenter’s script may not have gone to the logical horror route of the Slasher Film, but it’s twisted turns guide the audience to a surprisingly gruesome walk toward the pop culture of the future.

And Faye Dunaway’s odd performance does leave an impression.

It should be noted that this performance does not straddle an artistic line as her work in the ill-advised Mommie Dearest. Instead her work as Laura Mars is consistently up-ending itself. The manic and insecure diva-ish turn has, over the years, added a level of paranoia.

This paranoia plays well into both schisms of the infamous movie: The Uncomfortable and The Cult of Camp.

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Perhaps it is unfair to lay Dunaway’s failure all on her. She is given some very strange dialog:

While in a post orgasmic embrace she murmurs:

“I can’t understand. [slight pause] how it’s possible. [slightly longer pause] to live your whole life. [pause ] without someone. [slight pause] and be doing more or less OK. And then suddenly you find them. You recognize them.”

cue lush love theme as Tommy Lee Jones plants a big smooch on her face.

What do those words even mean?

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Perhaps Eyes of Laura Mars is a bad movie. Or maybe it is simply flawed. It doesn’t matter. Once you see it you will never forget it.

Matty Stanfield, 12.4.15