My understanding was that the French Institute Alliance Française was where you went to take French lessons. And I suppose the event constituted a French lesson, of sorts.
The institute hosted a sold-out crowd for the season kickoff of its popular “The Art of Sex and Seduction” series. The special guest was Madame Catherine Robbe-Grillet, an author and actress. But her most important credit, at least for the purposes of this evening, is that she was described as France’s most notorious dominatrix.
I’m not sure how you measure such things. There must be other dominatrices who would claim they’re just as nasty. What self-respecting dominatrix wouldn’t?
However, the hushed audience seemed more than willing to pay deference to the diminutive Ms. Robbe-Grillet. Now in her 80s, she still looked every bit the disciplinarian—in wire-rimmed glasses and a double-breasted navy suit.
She took the stage accompanied by her submissive, Beverly Charpentier, described in notes supplied by the institute as “the woman who gave up her freedom to serve her.”
Moderating the discussion was Toni Bentley, a former member of the New York City Ballet, better known for her erotic memoir “The Surrender.” Ms. Bentley also had written a 2014 piece in Vanity Fair about Ms. Robbe-Grillet, whose life, the magazine said, makes “Fifty Shades of Grey” look like a Disney film.
Indeed, the evening’s most overheated moment came when Ms. Bentley described visiting Ms. Robbe-Grillet and Ms. Charpentier at their château in France. Taking participatory journalism to painful new heights, the author underwent Ms. Robbe-Grillet’s lash in the château’s attic.
“It was incredible,” Ms. Bentley told the crowd. “I’d never been whipped before. Four more lashes. By then, I was weeping profusely…bringing the grief of all my life to the surface.”
Asked by Ms. Bentley when she was going to hang up her whip, Ms. Robbe-Grillet explained her “ceremonies” don’t exact much of a physical toll. She added that “what I do has more to do with eroticism than sexuality.”
The evening began with clips from two films about Ms. Robbe-Grillet. She was married to Alain Robbe-Grillet, a writer, film director and accomplished sadist.
“Madame was submissive to her husband for 30 years before she became a dominatrix,” Ms. Bentley explained helpfully.
Ms. Charpentier, who was also married and whose fantasies involved domination until she met her match in Ms. Robbe-Grillet, wasn’t shy about sharing either. However, she sounded more like an all-American, or rather all-French, mom than someone of unparochial desires. She explained that her greatest joy in life is taking care of others, whether her children or her mistress.
In one of the film clips, a woman explains that true freedom is found in submission. I believe it was Ms. Charpentier, though I can’t say for sure because Ms. Robbe-Grillet seems to have as many submissives as Taylor Swift does Twitter followers. In the context of the film, the comment seemed to make sense.
I was to be granted an audience with Ms. Robbe-Grillet between the end of the discussion—Ms. Charpentier, who is in her early 50s, ably serving as the evening’s translator—and a book signing. Ms. Robbe-Grillet is perhaps best known for “L’Image,” a 1956 sadomasochistic erotic novel.
Unfortunately, I was having trouble coming up with questions suitable for a family publication. One of them is what happens to Ms. Charpentier when Ms. Robbe-Grillet dies? Is she going to fall to pieces?
“I can’t imagine it,” Ms. Charpentier said, as if beyond the bounds of her imagination.
“It’s a strange idea,” Ms. Robbe-Grillet acknowledged, referring to her minion, “for people to imagine someone with a strong character to sacrifice themselves.”
And what had Ms. Charpentier’s husband, who died recently, thought of her relationship with Ms. Robbe-Grillet? She said he admired her and enjoyed her company, but “he didn’t understand what our relationship was.”
Ms. Robbe-Grillet corrected her: “He had a pretty good idea.”
At the risk of getting too personal, I asked what the ladies do when they’re alone in their attic?
“I think there’s some questions we shouldn’t answer,” Ms. Charpentier said quietly. And Ms. Robbe-Grillet agreed.