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Last Mistress, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not Your Typical Period Piece From Breillat"
5 stars

Since making her directorial debut in 1976 with the still-controversial coming-of-age drama “Une vraie jeune fille” (“A Real Young Girl”), French filmmaker Catherine Breillat has shocked and scandalized moviegoers throughout the world with a series of penetrating works of erotic Grand Guignol theater (including “36 fillete” (1988), “Romance” (1999), “Fat Girl” (2001) and “Anatomy of Hell” (2004) in which age-old battles involving sexuality and gender issues have been waged in the most physical and emotionally explicit ways possible with results that have been hailed by some as powerful and provocative and derided as perverse and pretentious by others. Although she hasn’t been working for as long as Breillat (having only been born less than a year before the debut of “Une vraie jeune fille”), Italian actress Asia Argento has been accumulating her own sizable of hosannas and hoots for her own highly provocative and intense efforts as both an actress (“The Stendahl Syndrome,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Boarding Gate”) and as a filmmaker in her own right (the autobiographically inspired “Scarlet Diva” and the J.T. Leroy adaptation “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things”). Because of their shared fearlessness and willingness to push any and all available envelopes, it was perhaps inevitable that the two of them would one day collaborate on a project (as good as it is in its present form, one shudders to think of how much more intense “Romance” might have been with Argento in the lead role of the sexually frustrated heroine letting her freak flag fly, among other things) but I am guessing that no one could have predicted that when they did finally team up, it would be for what appears on the surface to be a seemingly sedate costume drama. And yet, while “The Last Mistress” may look like just another excursion into Merchant-Ivory territory, it is a film just as intense and lacerating as their previous efforts and ranks among the finest things that each of them has ever done.

Opening in 1835 Paris (the time, we are reminded, of Pierre Choderlos de Lachlos, better known to you as the author of “Dangerous Liasons”), the film kicks off with the impending marriage of the dashing Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) to the lovely, young and well-bred Hermangarde (Roxana Mesquida). The only possible conflict standing in the way of this seemingly perfect couple and the happiness that they seemed destined for is the existence of Vellini (Argento), a hot-blooded Spanish woman of a certain age (okay, mid-thirties but back then, that was “a certain age”) with whom de Marigny has been carrying on a tempestuous 10-year affair that has scandalized the city. On the eve of his marriage, Hermangarde’s grandmother, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), summons Ryno for a frank discussion in which she questions how she can possibly trust him with her beloved granddaughter when he has been canoodling with someone as scandalous as Vellini, who is rumored to be the product of an especially tawdry union between a noblewoman and a bullfighter. In response, Ryno, in an extended flashback, explains the details of his long and occasionally twisted relationship with Vellini to the Marquise and insists that he is through with her forever.

This is good enough for the Marquise, who finally gives the marriage her blessing, but it seems that no one thought to mention any of this to Vellini, and when she learns about the impending marriage from Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale), she coolly observes that such a thing is unlikely to make much of a difference because Hermangarde, despite all of her wealth and beauty, cannot possibly hope to form the same kind of lasting bond with Ryno that she shares with him. For a while, though, it appears that the newlyweds have managed to do just that--they move away to a beachfront castle and Hermangarde becomes pregnant with their child--but that peace is shattered with the unexpected arrival of Vellini. Like another scorned woman from a couple of centuries down the road, she will not be ignored and although Ryno tries heroically to keep this woman from his past out of his present, he inevitably succumbs and just as inevitably, Hermangarde finds out about it.

Those looking for the visceral shocks that Breillat has delighted in depicting her previous efforts, such as her refusal to shy away for the occasionally icky mechanics and byproducts of sexuality that most films and filmgoers prefer to overlook, are likely to be a little puzzled by “The Last Mistress”--while the sex scenes on display are frequent and intense, they are not especially transgressive in what they depict or how they depict it. This was a smart move because while such imagery made sense in the context of her contemporary films, that kind of graphicness in the service of a costume drama would have inevitably jarred us out of the story that she was trying to tell. As for that story, it is thematically similar to many of her previous films in the way that it explores notions of sexual hypocrisy and the struggles of a rebellious woman trying to live life on her own terms at a time when such a thing was most certainly frowned upon by society. Happily, Breillat doesn’t fall victim to the tendency of many directors of costume dramas by treating the entire thing as a sort of moving museum piece in which everyone stand around stiffly (as though they are afraid that they might break something really rare and expensive) while the camera focuses on the lavish production design. The trappings are beautiful (none more so than Mesquida and Aattou, both of whom appear to have stepped directly from the canvas of a Renaissance-era painting) but they never overwhelm the story and Breillat keeps things humming along with a speed and determination that is also rarely seen in this particular cinematic sub-genre. This is an impressive enough achievement by itself but it is even more startling when you consider the fact that Breillat had a major stroke in 2004 and this film marks her first excursion behind the cameras since that event.

As for Argento, this is arguably the finest and most intricately nuanced performance that she has given in a film to date. At first, you might think that her decidedly off-beat looks and demeanor might be at odds with the relatively sedate surroundings (especially during the moment when one of Argento’s famous tattoos makes a possibly inadvertent appearance) but as the film progresses, it quickly becomes clear that her unique otherness is precisely the reason that she is perfect for the role. Because Vellini is neither as young nor as conventionally beautiful as her rival for Ryno’s affections, there has to be some intangible quality to her to make it believable that Ryno would be so consumed by her that he would be willing to risk all his happiness to spend just a little time with her. As embodied by Argento, those intangible come through loud and clear and when Vellini and Ryno do get together, you can almost see the sparks as they fly off the screen. (By comparison, the chemistry between Ryno and Hermangarde is far less convincing--then again, that is pretty much the point.) And yet, Argento is doing a lot more here than simply standing around acting like an irresistible sex bomb--this is a real character with real emotions and when the film requires her to plunge into those emotions, she does so with such heedless intensity that you don’t know whether to pity her or run to the hills in horror. In the past, some have suggested that Argento has little to offer as an actress other than a famous last name and a willingness to disrobe for the camera and perform the kinds of scenes that most actresses would go to any lengths to avoid performing. If “The Last Mistress” does nothing else, it should shut down that particular school of thought forever--not only is it the best performance of Argento’s career, I can’t imagine a situation in which it doesn’t turn out to be one of the top performances of 2008.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16485&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/18/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2008 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/09/09 Linda Chalem Powerfully erotic-fabulous period costumes and scenery 4 stars
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