The Last Mistress [Une vieille maîtresse] – dir. Catherine Breillat – 2007 – France/Italy
By now, you probably know that the most shocking thing about Catherine Breillat’s latest is how un-shocking it actually is. I hate using the term “provocateuse” for Breillat, as I think she exists above such classification, but perhaps it’s the best way to describe her to those unfamiliar. The lack of bite in The Last Mistress (or, as it is more accurately translated, An Old Mistress) is not something I fault Breillat for, as it thus proves that her voice isn’t always raised to the point of screaming as one would normally contest. Instead, The Last Mistress is a polished adaptation of the Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel in which a young bachelor (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) must chose between the love of his young virginal wife (Roxane Mesquida) and aging mistress (Asia Argento).
With the absence of feisty confrontation, The Last Mistress gave me the opportunity to look at Breillat beneath the surface. The film is surprisingly very tableau, composed with almost entirely flat, picturesque dimensions, infrequently interrupted by a close-up (usually of Ait Aattou). It’s in her visual scheme that we’re reminded of what Breillat’s really about: meta dissections of crippling male/female relations. As the Spanish mistress Vellini, Argento’s career obsession with playing women ripe with sexuality would have made her a perfect candidate for Breillat. I’m not saying she doesn’t live up this candidacy, but her performance is raw to the point where I could foresee the confusion of it being “bad.” She doesn’t appear as in tune with Breillat as Amira Casar in Anatomy of Hell or Mesquida and Anaïs Reboux in Fat Girl, and yet it’s in the roughness that Argento places on Vellini that distinguishes her from the otherwise sedated refine of the rest of the cast and ultimately gives The Last Mistress its haunting quality.
With The Last Mistress, Breillat yet again crafts a film of mesmerizing power. The film subsists somewhere on a different plane than the director’s other work, relying more on the perils the film’s central romance than abrasive stylization to stick with the audience. On a larger scale, the film may not resonate as long as Fat Girl has; the latter still haunts me to this day. Yet, it’s still just as surprising of a work as anything else Breillat has made. Additionally, The Last Mistress contains the best line of dialogue I’ve heard all year during an interaction between Argento and Amira Casar as an opera singer. “I despise everything feminine… except in young boys.”