Noel Burch Noviciate
Noel Burch is a prominent writer on film, publishing books on film theory, on Japanese movies, and on themes in French, co-written with G. Sellier. He is also a filmmaker, and among his works is the 17-minute black and white short Noviciat. The film is difficult to find, like Kenneth Anger’s adaptation of The Story of O (if that one even exists), but worth the labor, as it is an unofficial adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs.
The plot of this 1965 release comes in three parts. First a man (André S. Labarthe, who appeared in most of the New Wave movies you can think of), not quite a flaneur, is on a busy street in Paris. A woman catches his eye and he follows her to what turns out to be a judo or female self-defense class. The man goes to the trouble of climbing to the roof so he can get a better view via the skylight. The teacher (the mysterious Frédérique Franchini, whose only film credit this is), a woman a bit on the older side, and some of the students notice his crucifixion-style silhouette, and one of them brings him into the studio, using a recently-learned grip. The instructor quickly begins using him as a living dummy for the girls’ practices.
But his servitude doesn’t end there. He soon is feeding his new Mistress while himself dining on the floor, and sleeping on a mat in the studio while the Mistress luxuriates in her mammoth bed. He washes her clothes, taking care to bask in her lingering aroma. One night he helps her dress up to go out, the outfit including boots and a fur coat he helps her into. He becomes overwhelmed and makes a physical pass, which she treats with a few kicks and blows.
In the end, the Mistress has made a decision. We see an authentic Dominatrix type (played by Annette Michelson, another prominent film scholar and fellow filmmaker). Sitting on a couch observing a lesson, she is dressed in the manner from that epoch, in classic ‘60s leather with thigh boots, her blonde hair bound up atop her crown. When the class is over, the Mistress sits next to the guest, and surprisingly pours milk on the boots. The man takes a towel and embarks on the task of cleaning up the boots. The guest seems satisfied with the job he has done, and puts a wad of cash on the table, which the Mistress quickly grabs. The Mistress has sold her slave to another Mistress.
Then the man is led outside, and the three of them walk toward a limousine, where an Asian chauffeur, also in leather regalia, including a cute hat and knee boots, fills a syringe and places it in the back seat. The man is forced into the car, and presumably the Dominatrix injects him with the substance, as the chauffeur drives off to parts unknown.
The Mistress watches without feeling as the car pulls away, but her presence catches the attention of another bland man, who is shown starting to follow her as she returns to the studio, perhaps to have the whole process begin again.
Director Burch goes in for some snappy editing tricks early in the film, involving closeups of the man-slave, but soon he gets over that and simply presents the narrative in mostly medium shots, but what is important is that Burch captures the tone and mood of a Female-over-male dominant relationship. The costuming, the rituals, the Master’s visage as she observes the slave, are all finely honed and exact. Indeed, the relationship as observed in the film is a masochist’s dream, and one wonders what a non-masochist would have thought of this film stumbling upon it unexpectedly. Thus, the film also suggests that the rituals of masochism and female dominance have a European origin, dating back at least to the age of, yes, Sacher-Masoch, who refined and concentrated with a deep desire the contours of male submission to Woman. The film’s obsession with Boots, gloves, and furs points to its roots in Venus in Furs.
What little dialogue there is in Noviciatis in French, but that won’t matter to non-speakers, as the action is clear and one can infer what is being said by what is happening.