Last Mistress, The

Une Vieille Maitresse
France

Cannes Film Fest 2007–“The Last Mistress,” starring the eccentric Italian actress Asia Argento in an ultra-erotic part, is Catherine Breillat's first feature to be shown in the main competition in Cannes, though former films have played in other series of the festival; “Sex Is Comedy” served as opening night of the 2003 Directors Fortnight.

The movie premiered in Cannes a year ago, then played in several film festivals, including the 2008 San Francisco Fest, and now IFC is releasing the picture theatrically in the arthouse circuit

France's enfant terrible Breillat continues her bold exploration of gender politics and female sexuality in “The Last Mistress,” (in French “Une Vieille Maitresse,” which literally means “The Old Mistress”), a lush period piece seen from a contemporary, slightly feminist perspective.

Though exploring the issue of desire, both platonic and carnal, “The Last Mistress,” unlike Breillat's previous films, doesn't break major taboos. Most of Breillat's former films (“Anatomy Of Hell,” “Romance,” “Fat Girl”) were judged as scandalous by the more conservative critics claiming (unfairly, I think) that she was more interested in nudity and pornography than in examining sexual politics. It's therefore a pleasure to report that “The Last Mistress” is Breillat's most accessible work to date but one that's remarkably made without any compromising of her vision or integrity.

Adapting the screenplay from the novel by Jules-Amde Barbey d'Aurevilly (1808-1889), Breillat has stamped the text with her own signature. In a typical mode, her depiction of romance is darker than the norm, and while the passions are burning, they also involve terrible suffering. By Breillat's standards, “Last Mistress” may be a mainstream movie, but it still contains steamy sex and graphic depiction of some unusually “acrobatic” sexual positions.

The saga begins in Paris, February 1835, with a title card announcing that this is the century of “Dangerous Liaisons” author, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Breillat has said that she didn't want anything like the character of Merteuil (played by Glenn Close) in the screen version of “Dangerous Liaisons,” and that she sees her film as a story about love and passion. Unlike the scheming and conniving characters in “Dangerous Liaisons,” who are bent on nasty power plays, here, most of the persona are purer in emotion and more candid in speech, usually meaning what they say.

The film's story could have only taken place in an aristocratic milieu, where members have the luxury of time to indulge in–and contemplate at length about–courtship, romance, and passion. In the first scene, the elderly Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and the middle-aged Countess d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau) are savoring a meal, while commenting with greater pleasure on the fables and foibles of their fellow-aristocrats.

The essence of the tale concerns Ryno de Marigny (Fuad Ait Aattou), a womanizing aristocrat, who falls in love for the first time with a young and nave upper-class girl, Hermangarde (Roxanne Mesquida). However, before getting the wedding approval, Ryno must be interrogated by Hermangardes grandmother (Claude Sarraute), who's doubtful whether he is ready for commitment.

During the course of one long night, Ryno narrates his on-and-off, decade-long relationship with Vellini (Asia Argento), a wildly voluptuous, dark-haired Spanish aristocrat in her 30s. He arrives for what he thinks is one last pleasurable night with Vellini's body. But the tempestuous Vellini, the illegitimate daughter of a noblewoman and a toreador, has other designs. She perceives marriage as one more obstacle to be overcome, considering the heat she and Ryno De Marigny share together.

In an extended flashback, De Marigny recounts his tumultuous decade with Vellini, but stresses that he now seems sincerely determined to make a fresh start. Convinced, grandmother finally gives the marriage her blessing.

Breillat propagates the ideas of love and passion as feelings that border violence and even madness, notions conveyed in the changing intensity of the lovemaking, which goes from the tender and the erotic to the passionate and steamy all the way to the cold and calculated.

Be warned: Monologues in this film are long and often declamatory, but they are not boring or devoid of emotions. They are meant to express the characters' unraveling thoughts as they go along, suggesting both manifest and latent feelings.

Remarkably, “Last Mistress” is a sumptuously mounted costume drama with opulent sets and lavish costumes that don't interfere with the narrative flow and characters' conduct.

Breillat has said that she thinks of herself as a painter who invents her own colors, and indeed, her film's design is consciously influenced by the Italians of Florence and Bergame, such as Lorenzo Lotto, but also Northern painters, such as Holbein and Durer, who painted young men with lush lips and beautiful eyes like girls.

Argento and Breillat represent a match made in heaven, and you wonder why it has taken so long for the director and actress to collaborate. As Vellini, Argento embodies perfectly the capricious woman of flesh blessed with sharp tongue and sexy body, using both to an advantage. The brazen demeanor, husky voice, and outrageous wardrobe suit both Vellini the character and Argento the actress.

The central duo combines traditional masculine and traditional feminine traits. Hence, Vellini's passion is considered “masculine,” and so do her violent tendencies, self-assurance, cigar-smoking, love of danger and blood, reinforced by the image of chicken slaughtering.

In a striking feature debut, Fu'ad Ait Aattou as Ryno possesses dazzling beauty; he's dreamy without being ethereal. By today's standards, with his arresting eyes, full lips, and lean smooth body, Fuad Ait Aattou looks androgynous, though his Ryno is more feminine than effeminate, more sensitive than soppy.

As the third member of the triangle, Hermangarde, who's blonde and fair-skinned, is pallid compared to the larger than life Vellini. Sarraute, a journalist who last acted more than 50 years ago, conveys the authority and nonchalance of a woman who's been around.

Breillat should be commended for achieving a nice balance between an intimate chamber drama and a lush epic with great exteriors, smoothly switching from long landscape takes to mega close-ups of her characters in and out of bed, courtesy of the Greek cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis.

Cast

Vellini – Asia Argento
Ryno de Marigny – Fu'ad Ait Aatou
Hermangarde – Roxane Mesquida
Marquise de Flers – Claude Sarraute
Countess d'Artelles – Yolande Moreau
Vicomte de Prony – Michael Lonsdale

Credits

IFC release in the U.S.
A StudioCanal release (in France) of a Jean-Francois Lepetit presentation of a Flach Film, CB Films, France 3 Cinema, StudioCanal (France)/Buskin Film (Italy) production, with participation of Canal Plus, CNC, TPS Star. Produced by Jean-Francois Lepetit.
Directed, written by Catherine Breillat, based on the novel by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly.
Camera: Yorgos Arvanitis.
Editor: Pascale Chavance.
Production designer: Francois-Renaud Labarthe.
Costume designer: Anais Romand.
Sound: Yves Osmu, Yves Leveque, Sylvain Lasseur, Roland Duboue, Emmanuel Croset.

Running time: 114 Minutes.