Maggie in My Mistress may just be the sexiest woman in Australian cinema history, although it feels unpatriotic to suggest this given she’s played by Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Béart.
“I wanted an actress who had that obvious sexuality – the fetishist look that men would pay a lot of money for – but who could also be fragile and brittle,” says director Stephen Lance. “It was important that the person was also funny.”
Because of Françoise Ozon’s 8 Women (2002) and Claude Sautet’s Heart in Winter (1992), he had no doubt Béart was perfect.
At Lance’s first meeting with Béart at her home in Paris, she brought up the subject of how Maggie might walk in My Mistress.
“Like Anna Magnani in Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962; pictured),” he said, without hesitation. “Very tough and very sexy.”
Béart had only just watched the film, she said. It is unknown whether it was this coincidence that drove her decision to take the role, or if it was the macaroons that Lance brought (on the advice of his executive producer Bruno Charlesworth).
These boots aren't really made for walking
Béart’s Maggie is skilled in the art of sadomasochism and her killer shoes led to a mishap on set and a hospital visit for Béart.
“That’s what happens when you wear latex with lube,” says Lance, laughing. “You have to lube latex up, and either she or a standby person used too much lube on her black cat suit and it got on her boots [and she fell]. We thought she was okay, but all of a sudden she couldn’t walk. It was the second week of shooting and we were told she would probably need a cast. But her ankle was sprained so she just had to put it up for three days.”
If her ankle had been broken, would he have written it into the script, I ask: “That would be so perverse! It would be like a Luis Buñuel film!” Then he pauses. “I fear the reality would have been that we were shut down or would have had to recast.”
Masochism, mosquitoes... and Muriel
“[Emmannuelle] is a very famous French lady but no one recognised her on the Gold Coast and she liked that. But then it rained for six weeks and she was in a rainforest house with mosquitoes the size of golf balls.”
Lance reports that Béart and her hairdresser, Jean Jacques Puchu, also from France, were often in fits of laughter about being in that part of Australia because of the constant reminders of Muriel’s Wedding.
Lance wrote My Mistress with Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake, Sweetie). It charts the from-beginning-to-end connection between Maggie and Charlie. Maggie knows how to service the needs of men – maybe women too, but the audience doesn’t see that – and Charlie, who is making the crossover from adolescence to manhood. Harrison Gilbertson plays Charlie well. (Note the careful use of the word “connection” because of its neutrality, rather than “relationship” or “friendship”.) They are both troubled and this drives their behaviour and amplifies its emotional intensity.
“I wanted to represent the theatricality of life,” says Lance. “When you experience grief or pain it is an out-of-body experience. It feels like the lounge is a stage and people are looking at us differently.”
Lance cites two films about young males and older women as influencing his work: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974; pictured), about a love affair between a burly Moroccan migrant worker in his 20s and a German woman in her 60s, and Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971), which has an incest component that appears to do no harm to the boy at the core of the story.
The S&M component of My Mistress doesn’t appear to do Charlie harm either, although his mother (Rachael Blake) would not agree.
Rebel without a corset
“It’s a funny, sweet, tender romance that goes beyond the titillating veneer of S&M,” says Lance, who uses S&M as an allegory for the pleasure and pain of relationships. He didn’t have to dive into this world for the first time for the sake of the film: it’s not uncommon for debut films to be partly autobiographical and My Mistress is on this and other levels.
“It’s impressionistic but it does look at my own teenage years: my father committed suicide [like Charlie’s]; there was tension between my mother and I; I had relationships with older women; and the idea of going to see someone in a therapeutic sense to find your true sexuality is important to me as a person and as a filmmaker.”
“I was after a brooding quiet kid with a maturity beyond his years but the look of someone very young,” says Lance about casting Gilbertson. “I wanted someone with an ethereal quality, restrained and thoughtful, with a philosophic coolness to him.
Charlie’s familiarity suddenly makes sense when Lance mentions two films starring James Dean, the ‘50s poster boy for troubled teens: Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955).
“I wanted people to feel the teenage romance. It might have been bleaker if it was from Maggie’s point of view. I was trying to create a barrier between Charlie and his struggle to come of age and the rest of the world… I also wanted a melodramatic quality.”
‘Melodrama’ is a word that’s often used negatively in film, but not by Lance. He’s also not afraid to describe himself as an artist. Cinema is art to him and he likes it best when it has a dream-like quality. My Mistress reflects this.
Masters of melodrama
“The films I love have the ability to create a spell,” he says, mentioning Written on the Wind (1956) by Douglas Sirk and The Conformist (1970) by Bernardo Bertolucci. He also names Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), made rather closer to home.
I automatically think of Pedro Almodóvar in relation to melodrama on the big screen but Lance thinks of the Spanish director’s use of costumes, particularly in What Have I Done to Deserve This (1984), All About My Mother (1999), Kika (1993; pictured).
“There is a theatricality to Almodóvar’s women,” he says. “His wardrobe represents the emotionality of his characters so beautifully and clearly.”
The costume designer for My Mistress was Angus Strathie, who won an Oscar for Moulin Rouge!, alongside Catherine Martin. Maggie’s breathtaking S&M gear is of course an essential aspect of her character but importantly, so are the floral patterns she wears when she’s not in that mode of behaviour.
“There’s always something growing on Maggie,” says Lance, who describes nature and sexuality as irrepressible. When Charlie’s mum Kate blooms again, it’s reflected in her clothes too, he adds, although it’s more subtle.
Lance loves fashion and in fact, his next film is likely to be an adaptation of US writer and lexicographer Erin McKean’s novel The Secret Lives of Dresses.
Watch 'My Mistress'
Saturday 28 March, 9:35pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Stephen Lance
Starring: Emmanuelle Béart, Harrison Gilbertson
What's it about?
When a tragic family event tumbles Charlie (Gilbertson) into a world of pain, he tries to escape. Desperate and alone, he meets Maggie (Beart), the mysterious woman who lives down the street. She's a professional, and she specialises in pain - giving it, exploring it, and sharing it, all for money. Charlie insinuates his way into her life and despite herself Maggie can't stop from going along with his wishes.