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The Last Mistress

The Last Mistress

French filmmaker Catherine Breillat is no stranger to l’amour fou. Since 1976’s A Real Young Girl, adapted from her novel Le soupirail, Breillat has explored the extremes of female sexuality. She’s a lightning rod for controversy, pushing the boundaries of what could – or should – be shown onscreen, and her work has been labeled everything from revolutionary to exploitative to misogynist. Most Briellat films (like 36 fillette, Romance, and Anatomy of Hell) probe contemporary sexual mores, so The Last Mistress comes as a fascinating departure.

Set amid the Parisian aristocracy of 1835, this adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel Une vieille maîtresse is a stunningly beautiful period film, classically elegant and steeped in literary conventions. It contains some elements from her previous movies (the ingrained cruelty of Fat Girl and manipulative maneuvering of Sex is Comedy), but The Last Mistress is in thrall to Vellini (Asia Argento) and Ryno (Fu’ad Aïd Aattou), lovers whose bond is as conspiratorial as it is unbreakable.

Their tempestuous tale is told primarily by outsiders: the pointed commentary of elderly observers bookends the film. Breillat also frames a large chunk of the narrative as flashback, with the regal libertine Ryno de Marigny recalling his obsessive relationship with the socially dubious, Spanish-born Lady Vellini Annesley (her title comes courtesy of an elderly British husband) to the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), the worldly grandmother of his young, impressionable fiancée, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida).

Although The Last Mistress doesn’t have the brutal bite of The Duchess of Langeais or the mercenary machinations of The Other Boleyn Girl, Breillat excels when she focuses on the devouring devotion of Vellini and Ryno. This vampiric union is fed by passion, hostility, remorse, guilt, and recriminations, and their sex scenes are a direct expression of that heady concoction. They’re driven by an ravenous carnal need that trumps all better sense.

Asia Argento, with her earthy masculinity, and Fu’ad Aïd Aattou, with his ethereal femininity, are magnetically drawn together, oblivious to scandal. There’s a resignation to their decade-long coupling, a mutual acknowledgement of unspoken vows and no expectation of pleasure. Catherine Breillat is as enamored of Vellini and Ryno as they are of each other, and it brings unexpected warmth to her storytelling. After three decades of expanding the sexual parameters of cinema, she’s finally discovered something akin to love.

Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on June 27, 2008 by IFC Films
First published in the Metro Times.