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West Germany, 1978
Directed by Ulrike Ottinger  
With Tabea Blumenschein, Yvonne Rainer
In German and 
English with English subtitles
Approx. 137 min. DCP.

On the swashbuckler’s ship Orlando (a nod to the titular protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel), the flags of attack — leather, weapons, Lesbian love, and death — are raised with one goal in mind: total domination. German surrealist filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger’s debut feature stars her then-girlfriend Tabea Blumenschein as the titular Madame X, the leather-clad ruler (Blumenschein also designed the costumes) who promises "gold, love, and adventure" to all women who'll leave their humdrum lives behind. All aboard: a frumpy housewife, a glamorous diva, a psychologist, a very German outdoorswoman, a bush pilot, and a roller-skating Yvonne Rainer.


“When it was released, MADAME X shocked both the general public for its depiction of lesbian eroticism and feminists for its iconoclastic message that women are as aggressive, venal and self-destructive as men. It’s also tongue-in-cheek and — for all of the millpond languor of Ottinger’s imagistic, highly stylized cinematography — funny. (In a sequence of flashbacks, we learn that Orlando was drowned by a giant octopus. In the battle to save her, Madame X lost an arm, the absence of which she now conceals with a fetishistic, elbow-length, studded-leather glove.) MADAME X is high camp — good because it’s bad (wicked, even).”
– Amy Sherlock, Frieze

“Ulrike Ottinger’s swashbuckling s/m fantasy captures a saucy tableau on board the corsair Orlando… Beginning as a painter in the 1960s, Ottinger emerged in the following decade as a leading maker of postmodern German film. Loosely plotted, image-driven, and disposed to camp and grotesquerie, her early works occupied a singular place between the New German Cinema (a style heavily associated with, if not overdetermined by, famous male auteurs such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders), and the activist, documentary-oriented women’s film movement, which cohered around the journal Frauen und Film (Women and Film).”
– Chloe Wyma, Artforum

“MADAME X: AN ABSOLUTE RULER’s burlesque depiction of Sapphic violence — already a perverse pastiche of the internecine battles within second-wave feminism — became a lightning rod for debates about feminist aesthetics. Ottinger’s highly stylized exploration of the erotic fringe, her foregrounding of sado-masochistic and fetishistic tendencies as culturally constructed (and constructing) signs, obviously presented a challenge to essentialist positions which would condemn such tendencies as ‘naturally’ male.”
– Miriam Hansen, Film historian

Film Forum