S&M 101: Get Schooled By France’s Most Famous Dominatrix

Catherine Robbe-Grillet doesn’t look like a dominatrix, let alone the most notorious one in all of France. She’s 85 years old. She stands at a hardly-threatening 4’11″. And, with her prim black suits and pristine white-ribbon hairband, she resembles not so much a sadist but a sweet, benevolent and uncommonly smiley nun whose hobbies include — I kid you not — making jam.

As the widow of author, screenwriter and accomplished sadist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who opened her eyes to the joys of S&M, Catherine is now the master. She commands a small coterie of dominatrixes and “endless” submissives, male and female, who conduct her elaborately staged fantasias in her enormous 17th-century chateau, where she lives with her much-younger partner, Beverly Charpentier. “There’s not age limit to the kind of thing I do,” she says coyly during a discussion at the French Institute Alliance Française. “The very well-known film director Manoel Oliveira made his last film at the age of 100, so I’ve still got many years ahead of me!”

That’s a good thing, because currently, there’s a lot of interest in the kind of thing Robbe-Grillet does. The line to see her and Charpentier — a 52-year old mother of two who identifies as “100% heterosexual” with a preference for dominating strong men and signed her life over to “Madame” 10 years ago — at FIAF was down the block. In the past couple of years, thanks, in part, to the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the pair have been profiled in publications ranging from Vanity Fair to The Daily Mail. And a new documentary, “La Cérémonie,” takes a peek into their rituals, which are way more hardcore, but also more poetic and and beautiful than anything you’d find in (ugh) Christian Grey’s “red room of pain.”

In fact, there’s a lot I learned — about S&M, sure, but also love, sex, relationships and life — from these women, who were joined by journalist Toni Bentley, no stranger to the thrills of erotic submission herself, at FIAF’s series about sex and seduction. Here were some of the most eye-opening — and perhaps even inspiring — revelations of the evening.

S&M isn’t just whips and chains; eroticism isn’t just about sex.

That’s not to say that there aren’t ever any floggings at Madame’s rituals; there are. But, says Charpentier, “It’s not just a matter of going into a dungeon and hitching someone up with a pair of handcuffs to a hook on the wall and beating the shit out of them — that doesn’t do it for us.”

What does do it for these ladies is the ceremony and the ritual, and “everything that leads up to it,” from finding the perfect pieces of wood to create a cane, to landing on a theme for a particular evening. One such event, shown in “La Cérémonie,” involves a pair of bare-chested men behaving like dogs, fighting over a piece of raw meat, which Robbe-Grillet flings upon them, fabulously, from atop a grand staircase. Another — not shown in the film, but described in Bentley’s article about the Madame — included a Sleeping Beauty-like tableau where a man had to awaken sleeping dominatrixes by gently caressing them.

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“It’s not just a game or a joke or a quick hump and you’re off; it’s a communion,” Charpentier continues. “Catherine calls it the bubble, where nothing outside the bubble for that period of time exists, and it’s something very moving and transcends everyday life.” It’s the difference, Madame clarifies, between just sex and eroticism.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be dominated.

The biggest beef both women have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it links the desire to dominate or to serve to some kind of childhood trauma or psychological problem. “There are psychoanalysts who have felt the need to try to understand what I do, but I don’t need to know where my desires come from,” says  Robbe-Grillet. Observers are even more flummoxed by Charpentier, however – a beautiful, smart, educated woman who has given her life to serve another.

La Cérémonie 4 (c) Lina Mannheimer

“I can’t tell you why, but I met this woman, and all I wanted to do was to take care of her and do everything I could to make sure that she was happy,” says Charpentier. “The greatest joy in my life was serving the people I loved — my parents, my children, and this woman who I know. And it’s true that that’s where my liberty came from.”

Yet, what attracted Robbe-Grillet to Charpentier was the latter’s strength and character — the fact that they could talk and laugh and go to museums together and listen to music and, yes, make jam. “To give oneself absolutely to anything requires character,” says Madame.

Even a dom-sub relationship is about give and take.

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Yet even calling Charpentier merely a submissive is missing the point, and ignores the nuances inherent in any relationship. The biggest misconception that society has about S&M, says Robbe-Grillet, has to do with power dynamics. “A real sadist does not want the other person’s consent or pleasure, but in our world, there is always an agreement, a contract or tacit agreement, between two people. It’s an exchange.” Which also means roles and identities are far more complex and fluid than “sadist-masochist” — well, except for Madame’s, who is always in charge. That’s why Charpentier can be a dominatrix herself, yet still serve as Robbe-Grillet’s submissive. “You have to look for a compatible partner,” Robbe-Grillet says. “There has to be mutual pleasure, otherwise it doesn’t work.”

Raquel Laneri writes about art, fashion and other things for such places as The Daily Beast, The New York Times and Forbes. Follow her on Twitter @RaquelLaneri.

[All images from The Ceremony, a film by Lina Mannheimer]