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Thread: The Last Mistress

  1. #1
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    The Last Mistress


    Asia Argento and Fu'ad Aït Aattou in Une vieille maîtresse


    Catherine Breillat: The Last Mistress (2007)

    Sex and wit: twisting conventions in high style

    Review by Chris Knipp

    French director Catherine Breillat’s films have mostly been small-budget contemporary provocations with a feminist bent. Not this time. The Last Mistress, her twelfth, she says, cost as much as ten previous ones. It’s a costume drama based on a controversial novel by 19th century writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly about the libertine 18th century world of Choderlos de Laclos, of Dangerous Liaisons fame. This is a juicy tale of a high ranking young man slated to marry a young lady of impeccable reputation. One problem: he can’t seem to give up his seedy mistress of a decade or so. Who plays the mistress? None other than horror-provocation queen Asia Argento, who is in fine form in more ways than one in this, ready to throw caution and her clothing to the wind. The movie is full of witty talk and provocative sex scenes, dramatizes the conflicts between the idealism of the romantics and the freer morals of the century before.

    In fact The Last Mistress (Une vieille maitresse) is a transitional story that links the two centuries and in a sense presents a romantic conception of the eighteenth century. Ryno de Marigny (beautiful newcomer Fu’ad Ait Aattou) is the high born young man who has squandered his wealth on his Spanish mistress, the willful Vellini (Argento). Ryno is a post-eighteenth-century version of the eighteenth-century libertine--still titillated by his freedom but with the emotional dressing of romantic passion. Breillat obviously loves this combination, is at home with it, and has given it deliriously appropriate treatment in this minor but beautiful, lush, and thoroughly enjoyable film.

    The Breillat touch is perhaps most visible in the love-making scenes between Vellini and Ryno, in which there is much nudity and specificity of physical detail. Fu’ad Ait Aattou has pale skin and bigger, more luscious lipls than Asia. (He’s Brillat’s personal discovery, and had never acted before.) By intention, both are androgynous; this is Breillat’s conception of Choderlos de Laclos’s and d’Aurevilly’s libertines. The two actors are perfectly matched for this. Vellini is the aggressor; it is she who makes love with Ryno, using him like a lovely male statue made of alabaster. He is passionate like a romantic lover, however: that is, he’s hung up on her forever, no matter what he tries. Early on, he fights a duel with her English husband and is wounded in the shoulder. The sex sequences are specific and fleshy as in no other costume drama, but Breillat is not creating an anachronistic work. As she has explained in interviews, she is passionate about the quality of her period detail and bought tons of lush materials and costumes. The dress, the jewelry, and the interiors are all completely authentic, and there is a rich color scheme in which red and green and yellow predominate. Without seeming over-glossy (it’s not eye-candy like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette), The Last Mistress is a pleasure to look at. It’s also a pleasure to listen to, with its choice use of ornate and witty language. Oldtimer Michael Lonsdale as the gossipy Le vicomte de Prony particularly relishes his well-turned phrases.

    As the story gets under way, Ryno has now found a wife, the beautiful young blonde noblewoman Hermangarde (Breillat regular Roxane Mesquida), and he’s in love with her, and tired of Villini. Or he thinks he is. Hermangarde’s grandmother, the Marquise de Flers (non-actress Claude Sarraute, daughter of novelist Nathalie) is responsible for vetting Ryno, and in a lengthy sequence that’s the heart of the film, he confesses to her everything about his relationship with Vellini (tasty snippets off which we of course see). After much has been told (and shown on screen) in an amusing moment we see the Marquise reclining low in her seat: she is exhausted, but entranced. She absolutely wants to hear every detail. The Marquise is of course, of the older generation--a real Choderlos de Laclos lady. For her, the information that Ryno is a true libertine is proof that he is reliable, not an unknown quantity. And the cards are on the table. He’ll do. You can’t trust these new romantic true-love types.

    Rybno has every intention of having done with Vellini, and in a scene we’ve observed before his confession, he’s made love with her one last time and they’ve said their adieus and adioses. After his marriage, which we don’t see, Ryno and Hermangarde live in a castle by the sea--so that he can avoid the temptations of Paris. Velllini waits four months, and then she appears there to take him back, hair blowing in the wind. And once she is in front of Ryno, despite his professions of being fed up with her, he can’t resist her.

    There are several scenes in which Vellini draws blood from Ryno and licks it up: hints or Ms. Argento’s father’s screen gorefests no doubt. It was Daria Argento who made Sospiria, the recent The Mother of Tears, and many a Eurotrash horror classic.

    Three years after a stroke, Breillat is clearly in fine form--never better--and this is a long-awaited (by her) labor of love.

    Now in US release, showing in 19 theaters.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-01-2010 at 01:06 AM.

  2. #2
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    Catherine Breillat films revolve around the theme of female sexual desire and obviously her point of view is that of a female. Whether or not it can be said that these films have a "feminist bent" is open to debate. I would venture to guess, without having given the topic sufficient thought to say with conviction, that many feminists would have significant problems with Breillat's films. Her point of view is idiosyncratic enough to resist any labeling.

    I overlooked this thread and this is no review. But I enjoyed The Last Mistress too much not to comment briefly about it. I walked into the film with reservation about Asia Argento as an actress of sufficient range to tackle the role and I was absolutely proven wrong by one of the most mesmerizing performances of the year.
    Some would argue that her being cast in a period film is a type of anachronism. That's going to far, perhaps, as is labeling the film "anachronistic" but certainly there are elements in it one can't possibly associate with the years in which the film takes place. Vellini showing up at the duel dressed as a man has been mentioned. The song performed in the film, in German, was taken from a 1930s film set in the present. It sounds right out of Der Blaue Engel. The Last Mistress has a playful sense of mischief. I loved the way Vellini is introduced, and the bloody closeups. Breillat often skirts camp but barely. Veteran Michael Lonsdale and newcomer Claude Sarraute (as the grandmother) are absolutely perfect. This movie simply made me happy.

    Is it a "minor" film? Depends on what you mean. What makes it so?

  3. #3
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    I called it "minor" because it's not major. I love it too. And I think everybody is great in it, including of course Asia. I'm surprised to hear somebody thought Lakeview Terrace a masterpiece. Perhaps it's my familiarity with LaBute's plays that makes it fall so far short of expectations for me.

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