Starring: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau. Not Rated.
Catherine Breillat, the French
director of Fat Girl and a celebrated
provocateur, has acknowledged that her films tend to be preoccupied with female
sexuality and its power to sway the hearts and minds of men. Her latest, the
luscious, early-19th-century drama The Last Mistress, is no exception.
From the start, it seems to focus
on Ryno (newcomer Fu’ad Aït Aattou), a dashing young libertine ready to
renounce his scandalous ways for a life of marital fidelity. His longtime
mistress, a tempestuous Spaniard named Vellini (Asia Argento, fearless and
physically imposing), has other ideas. She acknowledges her lover’s desire for
stability and upward mobility in the arms of a pretty but hopelessly chaste aristocrat
(Roxane Mesquida). Problem is, she doesn’t particularly care – and neither,
after a time, does he.
Based on Jules-Amédée Barbey
d’Aurevilly’s controversial novel, published in 1851 and quickly condemned as a
wholesale endorsement of extramarital promiscuity, The Last Mistress isn’t really
about Ryno as much as it concerns Vellini’s
power to win him back, time after time and against his nobler instincts.
She is steely in her resolve and
manipulative when it suits her, but Vellini is hardly invulnerable. As the
unlikely heroine in a tale of dangerously compulsive liaisons, she freely
indulges her passions, if only because the alternative is heartbreak. Ryno, who
imagines himself capable of greater self-control, tries to embrace monogamy,
but it doesn’t take. He, too, is a slave to passion; he just happens to be less
Ryno’s betrayal of his naïve bride
is a crushing but seemingly inevitable humiliation for her, and though it
leaves a bittersweet aftertaste, there is undeniable joy in witnessing his
reunion with Vellini. These are fierce creatures who submit to temptation with
a consuming zeal, and while there is rarely tenderness in their affections,
there is very real love.
That their unconventional romance
incurs the contempt of their peers matters little to them. Ryno is branded a
shameless rogue, Vellini a whore, but so what? In their furious embraces they
find something close to bliss, and that, for them, is enough.
For us, it comes as a welcome
relief. Ryno and Vellini are neither calculated nor wicked, unlike the
mischievous anti-heroes of similar period pieces like Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont; they
are simply bound to each other by forces even they do not understand. Aattou
plays his role with the supreme self-confidence of a man in control, his deep
blue eyes radiating calm, but Argento seems to know better. She is a wild,
physical force, a primal fury who could only be resisted if she were to allow