A passionate and dangerous love story between an innocent teenager (Harrison Gilbertson) and an older, S&M-practicing, French woman (Emmanuelle Béart). Screening at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Suburban S&M saga plays it safe.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: What was the last successful Australian film where sex, or just sexual desire, was the fulcrum around which the story revolved? Australia might hold to (fading) notions of being unassuming and democratic, but we haven’t been comfortable with local filmmakers putting sex at the centre of our storytelling since Alvin Purple said his goodbyes. A willingness to suggest carnality and explore the attendant S&M field marks the new Australian production My Mistress, but Stephen Lance’s uneven picture is also defined by an uncertainty as to exactly how to make that viable.

Charlie (Harrison Gilbertson) is the troubled 16-year-old boy writ large: when the loner returns from smoking and drinking in the local park he finds that his father has hanged himself in the garage while a celebration unfolds in the family home; seeing his mother (Rachael Blake) kiss his father’s best friend after the funeral just adds to his inchoate rage. His outlet is Maggie (Emmanuelle Beart), a French B&D mistress living and working a bike ride away. As in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Charlie is drawn into her home, both scared and excited by what he sees.

“I make them forget their private pain,” Maggie tells Charlie, who soon graduates from casual gardener to potential client, confidante, and obsessive attendant. With a sterile green backdrop of the Queensland suburbs, the screenplay from debutante feature director Lance and Gerard Lee (Sweetie, Top of the Lake) frantically juggles mood and genres. Charlie is alienated and then amused by watching Maggie’s clients, while she huskily delivers blackly dry bon mots before stepping into a sexual thriller with the child welfare official (Socratis Otto) who controls the return of her young son, removed for her past transgressions.

Furious at his own, medicated, mother, Charlie is a de facto son for Maggie and vice-versa, but the parameters of their relationship change abruptly, sometimes to the point of farce when the intention isn’t strictly comedic. This needn’t be a problem, but Lance’s image making isn’t forceful enough to convey the fetid energy of these flawed characters. While the cinematography is by Geoffrey Simpson and Jill Bilcock edits, there’s not enough visual connection to the character’s undulating emotional state (there’s one great shot of Maggie cracking a whip above a masculine brawl like a lion trainer). Worryingly, some of the sexually charged moments resort to predictable set-ups that narrow the thematic possibilities.

In such uncertain circumstances the two leads acquit themselves decently; Beart’s severe facial structure, the result of apparently extensive cosmetic surgery, even has an otherworldliness that actually suits her isolated character. Maggie beats Charlie in a moment of rage and then talks to him like a shrink – “don’t blame yourself,” she says, as they each reveal their problems to each other before the next upending of their dynamic. That’s the most disappointing element of My Mistress, that for all the energetic flailing it goes through, it reverts to a conservative coming of age format. The boy cries and makes amends, before literally running off with adolescents his own age.

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