Une vieille maitresse

(The Last Mistress, France/Italy - 2007)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale
Genre: Drama
Director: Catherine Breillat
Screenplay: Catherine Breillat from Jules-Amedee Barbey d'Aurevilly
Cinematography: Giorgos Arvanitis
Composer: -

An early 19th century period piece written by a man and told from the male perspective might be the last thing one would expect from an auteur who specializes in bringing self penned examinations of sexually from the female perspective. However, while not sexually explicit or taboo breaking like most of Catherine Breillat’s past work, The Last Mistress is far less of a departure than it may sound. In fact, perhaps with the lack of so called shock and controversy to sidetrack the discussion, more people will come to a better understanding of what Breillat has been about.

For me, the crucial Catherine Breillat film is her debut A Real Young Girl. Perhaps that’s partially due to the fact that having missed her next several released during the two plus decades it was banned, it wound up being the first one I saw after all. More likely, it’s because 8 years later it remains in my memory clearer than most of what I’ve seen in the last month. Though many of Breillat’s films, including The Last Mistress, are about male-female relationships, in A Real Young Girl, and subsequently such films as 36 Filette and Romance, the fact that they are primarily portraits of the female lead makes it clearer that her struggle is first and foremost with herself, and more precisely her own sexuality. This factor certainly extends to most of Breillat’s other films, which are different more due to the dynamic of dealing more specifically with the relationship itself and thus less specifically with the main character.

Catherine Breillat has noted David Cronenberg as a director whose approach to depicting sexuality is similar. I’m not sure I agree with this, as although both are clinically realistic as a rule, Breillat tackles the subject head on while outside of Crash Cronenberg tends to avoid it as the specific topic, dealing with the issue through the genre aspects. For example, he’ll turn an object that theoretically isn’t sexual such as a video game controller in eXistenZ into something that is. The similarity I see is not so much in their portrayal, but rather that both intuit that sex is first and foremost a battle between the mind and the body. There's a defect in the human wiring that sets the flesh, or more specifically the genitals, in opposition to the brain, and this conflict is central to the work of both directors even if Cronenberg depicts it through the bulging heads of Scanners.

A normal movie would focus on the torrid aspects of the relationship, either to titillate or if it’s a more recent movie probably to give the puritanical hypocrits something to sell the film on even though they won’t really showing that couldn’t be included in the trailer to avoid a rating that would prevent the film from achieving the only aspiration its producers ever had. In any case, Breillat is more concerned with the idea that the characters incense themselves as much if not more than each other. If you boil The Last Mistress down to its essence, forgetting about the customs and rules, the accepted and expected of life in 1835 Paris, ultimately the people are the same as in Breillat’s contemporary classics. With mind and body as opposing forces, the characters become disgusted with themselves for actions that are inherently in opposition to one or the other.

Ryno de Marigny (Breillat discovery Fu'ad Ait Aattou) criticizes the looks of Vellini (Asia Argento) the first time he sees her, making an enemy of the Spanish courtesan who happens to overhear his indiscreet words. Indiscretion is a point of pride for this young libertine, who sets out to win her affections from her wimpy dullard of a husband as well as his friend who was just bragging about her as the woman he’s chosen to try to have an affair with. In fact, his “courtship” includes kissing her the first time his stalking results in a meeting despite being warned her husband is around, actually whipping Sir Reginald (Nicholas Hawtrey) with a riding crop when he interrupts with his protest. But the crucial point is Ryno is at odds with his feelings about and desires for Vellini from the first moment he sees her.

Unwilling to fully commit to anything, Ryno essentially sacrifices nothing for Vellini. Meanwhile, Vellini gives up everything for him once she becomes interested. A bastard who was made respectable by marrying a rich old codger, Vellini is still never really accepted into society, largely because she’s totally incongruous with the fashions and customs of her time (far more modern). Vellini quickly leaves a whimpering Reginald, and she and Ryno attempt to escape the scandal by settling in a shack in the Algerian desert. All is well until their young daughter dies from a scorpion bite, at which point their love transforms into a painful bond rooted in this failure, with Vellini perpetually grieving through sex that now seems barbarous rape to Ryno, who supposedly goes along with it despite his disgust.

What I find frustrating about most tales is their entire basis lies in comforting fantasy. They have a way of making it seem so easy to cut ties to someone you’ve cared about. You might be miserable for a little while, but of course you’ll be no more miserable than you already were, and soon someone better will come along to bring the true happiness you always deserved. I find real life to be far closer to what we see in The Last Mistress where some event partially fractures the relationship, but you hang on in some form if for no other reason than you have no other choice. What you essentially hope, wish, and/or pray for is to turn back time, to forget that impediment that’s sprung up. Maybe you maintain the relationship because you still get something from it, even if it’s only the hope that things will somehow get better, beyond the pain and dissatisfaction that come along due to remembering the way it was. And that’s what I mean when I say you have no other choice, as even if someone chooses to end it because the gap between what it was and what it is has become too horrifying, you never forget. You may be distracted, but there’s always that part of you that comes back to longing for old joy. Though you might argue and fight with each other, the more pertinent conflict is once again internal. It’s either too much for the mind and too little for the body, or vice versa. If not, you would at least have the option of escaping with a clean slate, of moving on and never looking, or more precisely thinking, back.

According to Breillat, The Last Mistress is a more suitable title for Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel than the actual French title Une vieille maitresse, which implies old where it means eternal. Though their affair seems to have petered out long ago, and they stop having sex with each other and find other partners, they can’t free themselves of its clutches. It becomes perpetual, as though they are theoretically only friends, they actually spend more time together than they did in the aftermath of their daughter’s death as they’ve gotten over the past enough to once again do other activities together. Vellini knows she’s only living when Ryno is around, so she won’t let him escape her, while Ryno is unaware of how the liaison has transformed him. From the start Ryno was obsessed with Vellini. It’s only her overwhelming grief that managed to put him off temporarily, as her own one-dimensional obsession for fighting the pain consumed her and thus overwhelmed their time together.

The tale centers on Ryno’s attempt to reform his libertine ways a make a commitment, not to 36-year-old Vellini who can’t move him that far despite the power she obviously maintains over him, but rather to pure virginal Hermangarde (Breillat regular Roxane Mesquida cast against type). Ryno vows to give up everything his life has been about to marry her, as true love is more powerful than Vellini’s sway or his own desire for freedom.

The better part of the film in more ways than one is the lengthy flashback where Ryno sells Hermangarde’s grandmother La marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute) on his willingness to be true to her granddaughter by confessing his entire history with Vellini. Despite his professed intentions, we realize Ryno is at odds with his yearnings for Vellini, hoping they’ll go away through denial, thus sensing he’s trying to convince himself more than de Flers.

Le vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and La comtesse d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau) wish to prevent the marriage, not really to protect Hermangarde, who is completely in love with Ryno. They’re simply a spiteful pair who endure each other largely due to gossip and the intrigue of playing games with the lives and reputations of others. Luckily for Ryno, de Flers is one of the veterans of the more licentious bygone era of Choderlos de Laclos who still opposes the closemindedness and puritanism brought on by the aristocracy giving way to the bourgeois. She prefers a penniless womanizer for her granddaughter than a rich dullard such as Vellini had.

Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 1851 novel, branded immoral, came at the end of this classic era of aristocratic literature, discussing complex desires and emotions, dealing with feelings that are difficult to pin down and put into words such as the way you can detest someone at the same time you love and need them. Male-female relationships are always power struggles in Breillat, and as a classic Breillat character Vellini loves to torment others, but first and foremost to bring agony on herself. A new aspect to Breillat that probably comes from adapting the novel is that the traditional gender characteristics are often subverted in The Last Mistress. Vellini is the dominant one, a violent and aggressive character who cuts her lovers face with a knife, and that’s when she’s not even angry with him. She smokes a cigarette with style, blowing big smoke rings. Meanwhile, Ryno is a dandy, the sensitive one who is dominated to the point of submitting to all but the crucial details that would keep them together forever.

Asia Argento is always a force of nature, but Breillat reigns her in and gives her enough legitimate high quality material to make her work to put over the movie rather than in spite of it. She still displays her out of control self-destructive behavior bred from boredom and contempt, but it’s the backbone of her character rather than disgust at the schlock that passes for a script. In The Last Mistress, she shows what an excellent actress she can be, conveying sadness, desperation, longing, regret, desire, and need without words.

Catherine Breillat has succeeded in credibly rendering an expensive looking 19th century costume drama for $10 million, or about what Hollywood would spend on dressing and doctoring the performers up so they were at their most gaudy and ridiculous. Her high quality literary adaptation actually lives and breathes once it’s been extracted from the page, which is rarely the case with adaptations of great literature from this era as they are either too theatrical, too modern, or are cast so ridiculously one wonders how the performers could not seem fishes out of water. Considering Breillat’s previous films were mostly intimate chamber pieces shot in small rooms, the fact The Last Mistress never seems an obvious literary adaptation like so many stilted and theatrical Masterpiece Theater productions, or even such poser art as the Merchant Ivory films is quite impressive. Though there are several anachronisms as usual, Breillat’s nuanced film features performances that feel natural despite the period garb and keenly heeds the subtleties of public behavior. This novel from the romantic period has translated into Breillat’s most passionate film, even though the main character Ryno, whose behavior winds up destroying all his women, isn’t the least bit romantic.

Succeeding in breaking out of her niche is a commendable accomplishment for Breillat. That said, she’s arguably the most unique voice in cinema and now she’s making the kind of movie Stephen Frears can make. I find this type of film far less intriguing than Breillat’s explorations of sexuality, as her feminine perspective and willingness to show raw, fiery realistic sex that’s beyond integral to the set her work apart from both the fantasy sex exploiters and the pornographers posing as artists. Still, even though it’s not an essential work like A Real Young Girl or Fat Girl, it’s better than the well-known films of its type such as Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons and Milos Forman’s Valmont. I still suspect it will be one of my favorite films of the year, and that’s quite an accomplishment considering not long ago we feared Breillat had made her final film.

The real hero of The Last Mistress is producer Jean-Francois Lepetit, also a supportive friend, who breathed life back into Breillat after her near-fatal cerebral hemorrhage left half her body paralyzed by promising to make the film she’s been wanting to make for so many years. The fact he was able to get a movie of this magnitude off the ground says a lot about his faith in her, as the cost was more than four times that of her previous feature Anatomy of Hell. Breillat fans may have to count on him if there’s to be a follow up to The Last Mistress, as her latest attempt Barbe bleue has been halted due to a tragic second stroke.


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* Copyright 2008 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *