Saturday, September 10, 2011

THE LAST MISTRESS

Catherine Breillat, 2007
Starring: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute

Une vielle maitresse, which actually means "an old mistress," is a period piece from taboo-busting director Catherine Breillat, one of my favorite filmmakers of recent years.

Ryno de Marigny, a handsome young libertine, is marrying the well off Hermangarde, a young, innocent noblewoman. Ryno has a passionate farewell with his mistress, the Spanish Vellini, with whom he has had a relationship for the last decade. When Hermangarde's grandmother and the rest of their social circle hear about his farewell, they are scandalized. Hermangarde's grandmother sits down with Ryno and makes him relate the entire tale of their relationship to her, until she is satisfied that it is over. Ryno and Hermangarde get married, move to the seaside, and are expecting a baby. For a time, they are happy, but Vellini eventually follows them and pursues Ryno. His resolve crumbles and soon their old relationship resumes, to Hermangarde's dismay.

Based on a novel by Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, an 18th century mystery writer who influenced Henry James, among others, the film is essentially divided into two parts. The first half is comprised of Ryno's story telling, where he confesses about his time with Vellini. The second part is about the aftermath of Ryno's decision to leave Vellini and marry Hermangarde. Though the first part of the film takes places in Paris, the second is in the blue, blustery seaside and marks a clear division between the two segments. For a minute I really thought this was going to lack the normal bleakness of a Breillat film and that she was going to deliver a lovely period piece about reformed libertines. Of course the ending proved me totally, gratefully wrong.

At its core, Une vielle maitresse is not the story of Ryno, the handsome libertine gone wrong but determined to prove his love; rather it is the story of Vellini, who engulfs the film in her large personality and inflamed sensuality even though we never see things from her perspective or hear her side of the story. She is fickle and changeable, not in her personality, but in the way she appears to us from the screen. She is not young or conventionally beautiful, nor is she smart, interesting, or adept at the political games played by the aristocratic ladies. But she appears in every role imaginable: proud, insecure young woman, resolved wife, passionate lover, grief-torn mother, friend, confidant, and determined seductress. Despite all of this, she remains inscrutable and unknowable, an independent being despite her refusal to give up Ryno.

Asia Argento is excellent as Vellini. Though I'm already a big fan of hers, I was surprised to see her in a major, dramatic role in what I first thought was a conventional period piece. When she smiles unconsciously and looks deep into Ryno's eyes, we understand the je ne sais qua that makes her so attractive. She is well matched with newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou, who was allegedly discovered by Breillat in a cafe. He is Ryno, with his voluptuous beauty and shy smile. These two characters are not drawn together by their love for one another, but by a consuming, mutual love of pleasure and independence.

If you haven't seen any of Breillat's incredible work, she usually focuses on themes of love and sexuality, though with plenty of violent, explicit elements. Though this film is relatively accessible and doesn't overtly attempt to shatter any taboos, I think it does so on a subtle level. Both Ryno and Vellini are anarchistic characters who float alongside the upper social strata, but lack the breeding, money, or social ambition that normally vaults middle class people there. Their insistence on independence continually flaunts the middle class values at work in the rest of the film and betrays the fickle nature of love and the inherent instability of marriage, which is presented as little more than a socio-economic contract.

I loved the film and it comes highly recommended. Aside from the subtle screenwriting and accomplished cast, Une vielle maitresse is visually sumptuous and appears to be inspired by the paintings of Goya. I could say a lot more about it, but as a final note, it is also interesting, like most of Breillat's work, as an incredible, if cruel, exploration of female sexuality. Though I only just watched it for the first time, I'm sure subsequent viewings will reveal more treasures.

There is no readily available region 1 DVD, but the film is streaming on Netflix and there's a nice PAL region 2 from Artificial Eye. If you thought you knew Asia Argento before this, think again.

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