17 December 2009

The Decade List: Une vieille maîtresse (2007)

Une vieille maîtresse [The Last Mistress] – dir. Catherine Breillat

The lack of bite in The Last Mistress (or, as it is more accurately translated, An Old Mistress) is not something I fault Catherine Breillat for, as it offers a shift in tone and voice from the filmmaker, working for the first time from source material outside of her own. Based on the novel by the Barbey d’Aurevilly, The Last Mistress focuses on a handsome young bachelor Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) torn between the love of his young virginal wife (Roxane Mesquida) and aging Spanish mistress (Asia Argento).

In using a voice less confrontational than she’s known for when directing from her own material, Breillat composes the film like a painting, adorned with almost entirely flat, picturesque dimensions, infrequently interrupted by a close-up (usually of Aattou). In the visual blueprint of The Last Mistress, we’re reminded of what Breillat’s really about: meta dissections of crippling male/female relations. Only here, it’s dressed up like a sordid tale of corset-wearing, carriage-riding liaisons dangereuses. As Ryno’s Spanish mistress Vellini, Argento’s career obsession with playing women ripe with sexuality would have made her a perfect candidate for Breillat. Argento embodies a rawness that almost feels out-of-place. Her presence isn’t as mellifluous 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 (Breillat told Argento to use Marlene Dietrich in von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman as inspiration).

Breillat’s craft yields a mesmerizing effect on The Last Mistress. The film subsists somewhere on a different plane than the director’s other work, relying more on the perils the central romance than abrasive stylization to stick with the audience. On a larger scale, it doesn’t 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 has one of the best single lines of dialogue of the ‘00s, occurring between Argento and Amira Casar as an opera singer at a lavish dinner party: “I hate anything feminine… except in young men, of course.”

With: Fu'ad Aït Aattou, Asia Argento, Claude Sarraute, Roxane Mesquida, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, Anne Parillaud, Amira Casar, Jean-Philippe Tesse, Sarah Pratt, Lio, Isabelle Renauld, Léa Seydoux, Nicholas Hawtrey, Caroline Ducey
Screenplay: Catherine Breillat, based on the novel by Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly
Cinematography: Giorgos Arvanitis
Country of Origin: France/Italy
US Distributor: IFC Films

Premiere: 25 May 2007 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Premiere: 7 October 2007 (New York Film Festival)

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