Barbet Schroeder's 1975 film stars Gerard Depardieu as a petty thief who breaks into the flat of a dominatrix, during a burglary. He then embarks on a relationship with the woman, played by Bulle Ogier, also assisting her in some of the sadomasochistic services she performs for her clients.
The film was first submitted to the BBFC on 12 October 1976, accompanied by some supporting notes provided by the film's distributor, including favourable critical reactions and an interview with the film's director.
Examiners at the time could see no viable way of cutting the film for an X certificate, in spite of the fact that the film had apparent merit.
As one examiner commented: "While a totally bizarre and depressing experience to witness, the film is very well made with good acting performances from two of France's leading stars. The director, Barbet Schroeder, is well-known to us but opulent excrescence for all its glitter, remains excrescence and this sort of depiction of sexual pathology goes way beyond what we can certificate for showing in a public cinema". Another examiner commented: "The film was thoroughly researched and based on interviews with such specialist whores, and carries a feeling of authenticity rather than one of exploitation. We cannot, however, pass it [...] although the film is made with some sympathy for the girl's clients who need such weird erotic stimulation rather than as an incitement to the audience to seek it for themselves, the actual scenes of fetishism are miles in excess of anything we have ever passed in this field. Cutting would totally destroy the point as well as the carefully maintained underworld atmosphere of the film".
In accordance with these views, which were shared by the BBFC's Secretary, James Ferman, the distributor was informed that the film was unsuitable for classification on 29 October 1976. In the letter notifying the distributor of the BBFC's decision to reject the film, James Ferman stated: "This is to confirm [...] that, after a second viewing with Lord Harlech and other Examiners, we now agree that this is really a picture which cannot be granted a national certificate at this time. We all feel it is a film of some merit which deserves a showing in Britain, but its subject matter and very frank treatment would, we believe, make it unacceptable to the majority of licensing authorities in the country without very heavy cuts, and these might change the nature of the film. In present circumstances, I believe it is probable that you would secure a local certificate from the GLC, and perhaps from some other metropolitan authorities as well, and I suspect you would thereby reach most of the audience for whom the film is intended".
Accordingly, Maitresse was submitted to the GLC for a London-only certificate, with the GLC writing to the BBFC to enquire about the reasons for rejection on 18 November 1976. In his response to the GLC, James Ferman noted: "Because we felt the film to be a responsible treatment of a very difficult theme, we suggested the possibility of cuts but did say that for a national certificate these would have to be extensive, since the punishments she inflicts on her clients of both sexes are shown with unprecedented explicitness. The distributors, on the other hand, felt that the strength of the film was in its honesty, and that to remove the objective recording of the treatments being meted out to the various clients would dilute the point of the film. We therefore suggested that, since it is unquestionably a minority picture, possibly only for art-house audiences, they might be better advised to seek local certificates from individual licensing authorities. It is always questionable in cases like this the extent to which such material in the public cinema might stimulate imitative experimentation. The film's director, Barbet Schroeder, suggests in a written interview that such fetishes are unlikely to be copied since they are the product of particularly deviant psychopathology. On the other hand, he goes on to say later in the same interview that many people have a streak of masochism in their natures which remains unexpressed. If the truth lies somewhere between these two assertions, then the film may present a problem for any licensing authority". In the event, it appears the GLC were unwilling to classify the film for release in London at that time, at least without cuts. Instead, Maitresse was released uncut in private cinema clubs, to which members only were admitted. Interestingly, however, the film was also submitted to Berkshire Council in March 1977, with Berkshire determining that the film could be awarded a local X certificate, subject to certain deletions. These were to remove:
"(i) the scene where a client is nailed by his genitalia to a piece of wood and nails are stuck through his nipples;
(ii) the scene depicting the humane slaughter of a horse;
(iii) the parts of a scene where a girl is being punished at the country house where Olivier draws a belt across her vagina;
(iv) the scene where Olivier urinates in the face of a client".
Following the film's uncut run in private cinema clubs, and its cut run in parts of Berkshire, the film was submitted to the BBFC by a new distributor in July 1980. This time, the BBFC was more favourable to the idea of cutting the film. In part, this was a result of a change in the law in 1977 that removed films from the vague test of common law indecency (under which individual scenes could be taken out of context) and replaced this with the tests of the Obscene Publications Act (under which a film must be considered as a whole, and the likely audience taken into account, as well as any artistic merits). An examiner commented: "What four years ago seemed unpassable in any form that would retain the film's integrity, now seems passable with cuts in just three scenes [...] The film remains a serious study of an extreme form of human sexuality about which it would be hypocritical to deny natural human curiosity. It never exploits its sensational material - but then, as examiners' reports of the time verify, we never thought it did. So what has changed? Answer: us. Encouraged by a change in the law enabling us to consider the film as a whole instead of throwing our pinnies over our heads over the decency of its component parts, enabled by the same legislation to consider the audience the film is likely to reach, encouraged by the gradual spread of cinemas catering to an intelligent audience [...] we have changed more than we, or certainly I, would have realised without this confrontation with ourselves of four years ago". In the end, the BBFC agreed to classify the film X subject to cuts in three scenes:-
(i) to remove sight of genital nudity as a woman is bent over and whipped;
(ii) to remove sight of blows landing during a whipping and to remove sight of needles probing a man's buttocks, as well as the subsequent flagellation;
(iii) to remove all sight of a woman handling a man's penis and then driving nails through his scrotum.
Some of the additional cuts that had been required by Berkshire Council in 1977 were waived - the urination was permitted because it was clearly simulated, the nipple piercing was permitted because it was simply a form of piercing, and the slaughter of a horse was permitted because it was a quick, clean slaughterhouse kill, recorded in documentary style, rather than set up for the purposes of filming. A cut version was resubmitted to the BBFC on 5 February 1981, after which the film was issued with an X certificate. In total four minutes 47 seconds of material had been cut.
Maitresse did not return to the BBFC in any form until May 2003, when it was presented for DVD classification by the British Film Institute. On this occasion, it was decided that the 1981 cuts to sight of genital detail were no longer required under the terms of BBFC Guidelines or policy, and that the scenes of sadomasochism were permissible, in this specific context, at 18. It was recognised that the film was a serious exploration of a difficult subject rather than a prurient or exploitative work. It was also agreed that the scenes in question were unlikely to lead to a risk of harm to adult audiences in the 21st century, given the relative restraint in their presentation, certainly by contemporary standards. Similar material had been permitted in other serious sadomasochism-related films and documentaries in the years since the film was last considered (eg. Lies and Nick Broomfield's Fetishes).