2007 // France - Italy // Catherine Breillat // August 18, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - If the mannered dullness of The Duchess of Langeais was a wincing blow to the fortunes of period erotic drama this year, The Last Mistress just might be its salvation, or at least a pleasurable redemption. Director Catherine Breillat meticulously assembles this tragedy of curdled love and molten lust with the obligatory production design opulence, but also with a clear command of the bitter-sour notes lurking within the material. Although The Last Mistress works within familiar genre conventions, it upends expectations with smoldering shocks and quiet gestures. Its most conspicuous flaw is the thin characterization that afflicts the French aristocrats populating its salons, opera boxes, and seaside castles. Thankfully, Asia Argento lends The Last Mistress the forbidden heat, wicked bite, and mysterious allure that it longs for. Breillat understands her star's centrality, and wields her like an assassin's dagger.
Bookending the film are scenes with the Vicomte de Mareuil (Michael Lonsdale) and Comtesse de Mendoze (Yolande Moreau), who serve as windows into the mentality of the Parisian nobility. The pair is preoccupied with one topic: the imminent marriage of angelic heiress Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) and rakish wanderer Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou). That Ryno is a notorious womanizer, socially unworthy of Hermangarde, fills the scandalized Vicomte and Comtesse with sanctimony and glee. Specifically, Ryno seems unable to give up his tempestuous, ten-year affair with a Spanish-Italian courtesan, Vellini (Argento). Much of the film takes place in flashback, as Ryno, desperate to win the approval of Hermangarde's sly, sweet grandmother, the Marquise de Flers, confesses the details of this forbidden relationship.
The film's characters—smooth young dandies and silver grande dames alike—are undeniably beautiful in their way, but often disappointingly one-dimensional. It's not an unforgivable sin (this is period costume drama, after all,) save perhaps in the context of Ryno. Too often, the witty devil that Ryno should be slips to reveal a dunderheaded victim of Vellini's curious charms, or merely a bland, pampered narcissist. The former might be intentional, as the film in part examines the way that addiction to illicit sex makes fools of people. The latter, however, is evidence of misplaced emphasis. Ryno just doesn't have the strength of character to serve as an engaging protagonist. It may be a casting issue: Aattou's porcelain androgyny doesn't really suit a worldly libertine. At any rate, Breillat compensates by relying on Argento to evoke the cruel, damaged, sex-hungry tone that makes the film thrive. Her Vellini is not the hero, or even the anti-hero, but she is the film's heart.
Indeed, it is Argento that makes The Last Mistress worthwhile, even dazzling at times. Vellini is far from the most beautiful woman in Paris—Ryno describes her as an "ugly mutt" when he first glimpses her—but there's a fire in her breast that everyone can sense and Ryno covets. Argento's rounded, boyish, mean features and strange, curved teeth suggest a woman brimming with contempt for social standards and the opinions of others. This makes Vellini all the more desirable, and it grants a primal intensity to her lovemaking. She is a riddle that Ryno savors but has no hope of resolving.
Agento walks a fine line by embarking on a full-throated, even frenzied performance. At times she veers past pained and collides into outright silliness. (One disturbing sex scene has her shrieking in such orgasmic anguish that it's a little hard not to giggle.) Still, there's a hypnotic completeness to the portrayal, a wholesale commitment to render Vellini as a physically and emotionally unified character, even as she bubbles with conflicting urges. She is a strange woman, but her behavior never seems strange in the moment. Consider a scene where Ryno lays wounded from a pistol duel. Vellini, previously venomously dismissive of Ryno's advances, suddenly lunges past the surgeon and hungrily licks the man's wound. Breillat and Argento make the gesture marvelously unexpected, but not confusing. The meaning is as clear as the moment is bizarre: Ryno's infatuation is now requited.
The lazy adjective "brave" gets tossed around whenever an actress of any talent bares her breasts on screen, even for a moment. What Argento does in The Last Mistress is a whole different ballgame: scenes of torrid sex that are only a shade removed from soft-core pornography. That this requires confidence on the actress' part goes without saying, but it also demands good judgment from both performer and film-maker. Is the scene merely prurient or does it serve to illustrate something significant about the character? (Can a scene be simultaneously prurient and utilitarian? I think so, and I think The Last Mistress has such scenes.) Breillat is engaging in voyeurism, to be sure, but her gaze is directed into the heart and mind. We are embarrassed at the sight of naked, rutting Vellini, not because we are ashamed of her carnal sins, but because Argento gives such a rattling performance that it offers glimpses of ugly, broken places in the noblewoman's inner world. It's no coincidence that Argento projects the most discomfiting, realistic sensuality in the most defeated, ruinous sex scene in the film. Ryno is, by comparison, merely a blank (albeit well-sculpted) prop.
While Breillat equates Ryno's sexual obsession with Vellini to a drug addiction, she also offers an assessment of sexual behavior that is more challenging than a mere depiction of human weakness. Through Ryno's confession to the Maquise, we eventually learn how such ferocious desire and bad blood blossomed between the couple. The tortuous path of their affair indicates that The Last Mistress is not the typical indictment of wealthy society its genre trappings might suggest. Rather, Breillat offers a more sobering and personal examination of the dynamics of lust. How does desire appear, so often unbidden and inconvenient? Can it evolve into genuine love? And if love vanishes, will desire survive, growing irresistible and cancerous in its absence? Breillat conducts these inquiries with such intensity, and with such a captivating instrument in Argento, that the film's narrative troubles--chiefly some confused storytelling in the final half hour--seem trifling.