There’s just something inherently surreal about watching a documentary about a 85 year old French dominatrix where it never actually feels particularly sexual despite there being specific scripted and acted out segments of S/M play/ceremony. In a way it’s sort of beautiful to be able to sit back and just listen as someone tells you honestly, without any reservations, embarrassment or shame, how liberating and fulfilling it is for them to be able to find a person to whom they can surrender themselves completely, to have someone they can willingly devote their entire being to and form a meaningful, lasting contract where they are able to live under the dominance of another person and thus achieve the incandescent satisfaction that is, in the absence of a better word, absolutely ethereal.
The approach here is interesting because instead of doing a common place biographical film that recounts Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s entire life story to you, Mannheimer has chosen to paint a more complicated and contemporary portrait of Catherine through intimate one on one interviews with the people close to Catherine, where you slowly start to feel as if you were there in person having the chat yourself, and thus form the mental image of what kind of an extraordinary woman Catherine is to the people who make her inner circle. Naturally you do get few moments with Catherine herself too, but for the most part she is allowed remain in the background, which lends an air of appropriate mysticism and intrique to her person.
The staged ceremonies that try to artistically illustrate the sadomasochistic world that Catherine and her associate build during their sessions were quite beautiful and incredibly sensual. Visually they were gorgeous, brilliantly constructed scenes that perfectly evoked that certain je ne sais quoi allure that you can find in allowing yourself to be dominated. It’s not just the sexually charged, bound, electric atmosphere that creates that mesmerizing sensation, there was also this certain fantastical, elusive other worldly quality to it that comes very close to enthralling you. The one particular ceremony involving the female dancer held stunning palpable eroticism to it that made me breathless in its incredible yet simple grandeur. I also recall being very captivated by the imagery when in the other ceremony with the two male “beasts” were shown covered with feathers that were slowly falling down from up above, it was like a perfect representation of the type of overwhelming bliss and splendor you must feel when you are reaching that sensation where you have achieved the contradiction of feeling absolutely boundless while being completely under the control of your domina.
The Ceremony doesn’t offer any cheap titillation or life changing experiences, or shocking emotionally charged thrills but it does give you a fascinating window into the world of S&M in a way that I think comes very close to faithfully expressing just what that enclosed world represents to the people who live in it in a universal language that we can all understand. It’s quite magnificent.