—Istanbul

Catherine Robbe-Grillet: An Eighty-four-year-old Dominatrix in Istanbul

By Binnaz Saktanber
Authors
  • Binnaz Saktanber

    Binnaz Saktanber is a writer whose work on current affairs and arts has been  published in many Turkish and international publications including The Guardian, CNN, and others. She acts as the Arts and Culture Director of MASPNY based in New York City. Saktanber is also Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate in the City University of New York, Graduate Center Political Science department. She is based in İstanbul.

If you take your cues from popular culture, the mainstreaming of S/M is complete. Kink is everywhere: Rihanna sings about chains and whips, Béyonce wears bondage gear, the person next to you on the subway is reading the latest in spank-lit, and your mom cannot wait for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. Yet the practice of S/M is still taboo and censored, especially in our neck of the woods, and meeting a real-life dominatrix is no ordinary thing. Catherine Robbe-Grillet is a writer and actress, the widow of nouveau roman pioneer and sadist Alain Robbe-Grillet, a cultural institution in her own right, and oh yes, the most famous dominatrix in France.

Catherine, or “Madame” as she likes to be called, was in Istanbul to participate in Dîner Noire, a multi-layered art event at the intersection of performance and ceremony presented by Protocinema, and in collaboration with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Tristan Bera. We met after the dinner, during which guests in noir de rigueur attire, followed a strict scenario with S/M undertones and mise en scène by Catherine, like a very PG version of her legendary S/M ceremonies, or “sadomasochistic stagings,” as she describes them. Later, we chatted for hours over late-night Skype sessions: she in her Paris home along with her partner Beverly Charpentier, I in Istanbul. Getting to know her was fascinating not only because she is an icon, but also because she spent her life battling with bias and censorship, two evils clouding Turkey’s art scene.

Turkey’s failing report card when it comes to freedom of expression is widely reported. The country ranks 154th of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. And while censorship in the arts does not necessarily lead to jail time—as it does for the press community—theatre, movies, books, exhibitions, sculptures, and everything in between are censored every day. Turkey’s defamation laws and the Anti-Terror Law are regularly used to censor political content, whereas vague articles against obscenity or purporting to protect “Turkish morals and values” can be used to censor anything from the writings of William S. Burroughs to the films of Lars von Trier.

Catherine wrote her first novel when she was twenty-five. L’Image, a sado-erotic tale written under the male pseudonym Jean de Berg, created such shockwaves in 1957 Paris that it was publicly burned. In Ceremonies des Femmes (1985) she switched to the female pen name Jeanne de Berg, and told stories of New York’s S/M clubs. When she finally published under her real name with Jeune Mariée (2004)scandal erupted again. An account of the early years of her marriage to Alain, the book was filled with candid details about their open relationship and S/M practices. Catherine was also the muse for Alain’s film career. She had memorable parts in L’Immortelle (1963), Trans-Europ-Express (1967), which was censored by the British Board of Film Censors, and many others. She was also the subject of a documentary in Lina Mannheimer’s The Ceremony, which focuses on Catherine’s life as an artist and a dominatrix.

Suffice to say that Catherine is no stranger to art censorship. She is no stranger to Turkey either. Her family is Armenian and had lived in Istanbul until 1924. She came to the city of her father’s childhood for the first time at the age of fifteen as an ingénue high school student on a summer school trip. She met Alain during that trip. They returned in 1960 as a married couple to scout locations for L’Immortelle, and back again to shoot it in 1962. L’Immortelle, which won the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc at the Berlin Festival, is a surreal erotic dreamland with no chronological narrative and lots of fantasy sequences. The film’s characters are all Turkish, except for the one called the Man, who does not understand Turkish; most of the dialogue is in Turkish and was not translated, allowing the audience a genuine impression that they are experiencing the world through the eyes of the film’s hero.

I tell Catherine that I feel like today it would be hard to screen a film like L’Immortelle in Turkey, let alone shoot it. Very recently Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac was banned from theaters because of its sexual content. “This film is porn,” said Cem Erkul, Turkey’s general director of cinema. A recent change in the Culture and Tourism Ministry’s regulations for feature film support withdraws any financial funding for films rated for audiences over eighteen. What is more, any movie that receives financial support from the ministry has to be released in Turkey. This means the ministry can decide how a film is rated according to their antiquated standards, and if they decide to rate it R18, their support will be retracted. Last week, eleven documentaries were withdrawn from one of the biggest international film festivals in Turkey, the 51st Altalya Golden Orange Festival, amid censorship claims. Reyan Tuvi’s documentary on last year’s Gezi protests, Love Will Change the Earth, was removed from the festival’s National Documentary Competition because it violated articles of the Turkish Penal Code on the defamation of the president. Tuvi first removed the problematic part (a translation of a Turkish swear word in the English subtitles) but then decided to pull the film altogether along with the other eleven directors. Showing solidarity with fellow artists that face censorship is the honorable thing to do. Yet the fact that most film festivals are supported by the government in one way or another, and that young filmmakers especially are in dire need of the support the Ministry of Culture provides, complicates matters.

I ask Catherine about their experience with L’Immortelle, in the midst of the coup d’état in 1960. “We had to wait to shoot the movie until 1962 because of the political turmoil in Turkey. Working conditions would have been too complicated if we had stayed. We wanted to wait until things calmed down but nobody asked us to leave. Nobody bothered us during the shoot or censored the scenes either, although it was quite a scandalous movie for the time. One thing that happened was in June 1967, we were screening Trans-Europ-Express when Alain realized some of the erotic scenes had been cut. He complained and, mysteriously, the scenes reappeared for subsequent screenings. We never knew whether this was due to an official government censorship, or whether it was theprojectionistwho had cut the dirty bits, planning to keep them for himself, which was something that often happened at the time,” she says. Although the thought of a collector projectionist is more amusing, I have a feeling this was more than that. But at least the scenes were restored.

Books are a different matter. There is no chance of pages magically reappearing once they are gone. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once famously said, “Some books are more effective than bombs.” It looks like the censorship policy in Turkey is dedicated to detonating those explosives: publishers of Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff and William S. Burroughs’s Soft Machine stood trial for disseminating obscenity.Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Exploits of a Young Don Juan escaped censorship for a while, when a court dismissed the case because the novel was “a genuine work of literature.” The victory did not last long—in 2013 the Turkish Supreme Court decided Don Juan did not possess “any artistic or literary value” and was full of “vulgar, ordinary phrases, intended to provoke sexual desires by representing deviant, lesbian, unnatural, even animal-related sexual relationships.” It further concluded that the book had “no plot whatsoever.” Snap! John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and José Mauro de Vasconcelos’s classic children’s book My Sweet Orange Tree, were also subject to scrutiny. My Sweet Orange Tree, classic reading material in elementary schools and a staple of my childhood that made me cry so hard I could not leave my bed for a whole day, offended a group of teachers and then a parent because its supposedly obscene content clashed with Turkish morals and values. The story of little Zeze, a child of poverty, abuse, and loneliness who tries to cope with the hardships of life by befriending an orange tree in his garden includes a scene in which Zeze repeats a song his teachers were singing about longing for a naked woman under the moonlight, and upsets his father. The concerned parent must have been more upset than the imaginary father in the book—so much so that his complaint led to a disciplinary investigation of the teacher who assigned the book.

I ask Catherine about her experiences with censorship when L’Image was banned. “At the time censorship was very expected so I was not surprised at all that L’Image was censored. I thought it was part of the fabric of the times we lived in. That was actually why I chose a male pseudonym [Jean de Berg]: to be clandestine. Police came one night to the publishing house and asked who Jean de Berg was. The editor Jerome Lindon answered, ‘No idea, the text came in the post.’ We were not allowed to publish it or to advertise it. But, of course, the book had a life on the underground as is always the case whenever there is censorship.” She never got censored in translation. But she was still surprised when last year a publishing house in Turkey asked for the rights of Un roman sentimental, Alain’s last book. “Which is of course outrageously scandalous as it deals with pedophilia, sadomasochism, and incest. I almost fainted when I heard they want to publish it. I would be surprised if it ever gets published,” says Catherine. When I ask her if art can flourish in an environment of censorship, Catherine stays cool: “It depends on the extent of the censorship. If it is a totally totalitarian country then the chances are limited. But whenever there is censorship people go underground and carry on. In France always, even during the times of the worst censorship things were still published underground. There is always hope.”

Hope is hard to find in Turkey, where in 2011 the former minister of interior Idris Naim Şahin said, “art is the backyard of terrorism.” And it looks like the Turkish government does everything in its power to drive that point home: In January 2011, Erdogan called a statue “a freak.” The sculpture was quickly demolished. This was The Statue of Humanity, built in honor of the Turkish-Armenian friendship after the reconciliation process that began in 2009. Playwright Meltem Arıkan and the actors in the play Mi Minor, which tells the story of a utopian democracy with a dictator as the president, were accused of inciting the Gezi protests last year. They became the victims of a hate campaign, their lives threatened. In November 2013, a portrait of Erdoğan was removed from an exhibition at the 23rd Istanbul Art Fair. The portrait depicted the then prime minister with oil and double highways on his face. Three portraits of Kurdish women who were killed in Paris last year were also taken out of artist Gülizar Kılıç’s exhibition in a state hall in Ankara. Cartoonist Mehmet Düzenli was sentenced to a three-month prison term on June 2014 since he supposedly insulted religious figure and TV personality Adnan Oktar with his cartoons.  The examples are endless. I am actually surprised that Catherine’s performance in Istanbul stayed under the radar and did not suffer any censorship at all, maybe because the event was by invitation only.

But flying under the radar is not the solution as freedom of the arts is heavily dependent on the cultural policy practices of the government in Turkey. Defamation laws, the Anti-Terror Law, articles in the penal code against insulting religion, and the ‘concerned citizen’ who can easily cause an investigation or even a lawsuit against a work of art or an artist have bigger radars than we can ignore. What can be done? Freemuse, the Istanbul-based NGO Siyah Bant, and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression have recommended excellent points in the report they submitted to the UN for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Turkey concerning the human rights record of the country. The joint submission recommended that the Turkish government stands by its commitments, both under international agreements and its own constitution, to protect freedom of expression and artistic rights by stopping the abuse of laws in a way that leads to the punishment of artists whose works challenge authority but do not promote violence, and amending or revoking those laws to ensure that they cannot be used in a way that that curtails the rights to freedom of expression. Notably problematic is the Anti-Terror Law and the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations, which criminalizing defamation and insult so that a person who criticizes those in power is imprisoned. The other recommendation the report makes is ensuring that broadcast regulators, such as the film certification boards, are independent of government, and that decision-making bodies that provide funding for public arts are similarly independent of political, religious, and corporate influence.

 

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There is more I want to talk to Catherine about, because censorship of the arts is only one of the hardships Catherine had to face during her long career. Being a dominatrix at the age of eighty-four brings its own set of challenges. Prejudice is one of them, still. “In France, S/M is more tolerated now. It has become a theme that has been picked up by advertisers. [It is] quite fashionable to hint [at it] in advertising or to [use it as] dress up [for] parties but the actual practice of things have not changed: [it is] still not accepted, still considered sulfurous, especially when it is practiced by an old lady.” Even for those who claim to be unbiased, meeting Catherine is reflective. At least it was for me the first time I saw her. There she was, a woman of eighty-four, petite to the point of fragile, elegant in an all-black ensemble except for her white hair covered in a chic turban. She carries the weight of centuries-old prejudices about female sexuality, age, and physicality, and she made me confront my own preconceived ideas about what is erotic or desirable. Catherine is accustomed to this. She knows too well how people see her and why: “Now I am quite famous. But in the past, I would warn people before a meeting: I am very small, I am very old, I am not at all what you might expect. I do not correspond to the cliché of a dominatrix. There are three things that are still universally taboo: sexuality of handicapped people, sexuality of old people, and sadomasochism. And I fit two out of three. Men are mystified by female sexuality to begin with because it is much more complex and enigmatic than male sexuality. And on top of that old bodies disgust people. Even fifty- and sixty-year-olds find the idea of old people’s sexuality dirty and indecent.”

If Catherine looks like the epitome of non-conventional, Beverly Charpentier (fifty-one), her submissive companion, dresses the part of ‘sexy’ in a more orthodox way, although her story is nothing but. Towering above Catherine, her reddish hair in an Edwardian bun, she is wearing a delicate choker and a black corset, which does justice to her décolletage. So when she compliments mine, I blush easily. Beverly, who says she has “given her soul to Catherine,” is an extension of her; there is not one without the other. She is the one who responds to my e-mails (“I am Catherine’s secretary” she says) and our Skype sessions are a perfect three-way, where she tells her story too and translates the rest patiently whenever my French fails me. Patient she also was for years before she says she “convinced” Catherine to become partners. They met in Mexico on 22 November 1991 (Catherine remembers the exact date) when Beverly and her diplomat husband gave a dinner in honor of Alain and Catherine. Beverly felt she belonged to Catherine the minute she saw her but they remained nothing more than close friends for years, although Beverly had also been a dominatrix in almost all of her previous relationships. “I thought she did not want sexuality to be a part of our relationship. And she thought I was not interested. One night at dinner with Catherine’s close circle of dominatrix friends, I said S/M has always been a part of my life and their jaws dropped. That was the beginning of the change.”

Beverly is extremely protective of Catherine. Although her family adores Catherine (the feeling is mutual) and they enjoy a coveted position in French art circles, they are often insulted either to their faces or on the Internet. “I want to jump up and shoot the person,” Beverly says, whenever she reads or hears a negative comment, and she often has violent verbal exchanges with strangers. Whenever an article comes out about them she fears that “people would throw sulfur bombs at them.” Catherine is the one who calms her. She has encountered everything from the burning of her first novel to people shouting “pervert!” to her face but she is OK with it: “I am comfortable enough with myself to accept the fact that people won’t accept me. And militant about people’s right to their opinions even if they do not share mine.”

Catherine may sound nonchalant about sexual politics, but she says she identifies as a “pro-sex feminist” and “the kind of feminist who supports the right of any man or women to work as a prostitute, if it is their free choice.” She feels France is getting more and more conservative, and knows she has been a significant part of the sexual revolution: “It was not my intention but I happen to be a part of it as a woman who chose to live her sexual life independently of a man. There are very few dominatrices who chose to be so without being pushed by a man or getting paid for it. I never, ever accept money and I advocate for a woman to stand up for herself whatever her sexuality may be.”

So if somebody wants to join one of her ceremonies, how would they do it? “I am not looking for candidates but people often write to my publisher. Most are not accepted, and if they are they have to take an erotic exam. The person has to come and prove her- or himself before the real ceremony. I am not interested in physical beauty. What attracts me is the sincerity of the emotions and the greatness of their need. Just recently we had to send this beauty queen woman home because she was like a piece of wood. And then there are people who are not interesting physically but very exciting to be with, because their desire is great.” Catherine says she might invite some of the guests of Dîner Noire for a ceremony, having found one particular woman’s graceful submission very erotic. She hopes to come back to Istanbul for a two-woman play, Savannah Bay by Marguerite Duras, with Beverly and herself as the leads. I say I hope to see her again when she comes back. I do not tell her I hope the play makes it without any censorship. I pause, but I do not dare to ask her publisher’s address, either.