Friday, June 27, 2008

Tame Bodice-Ripper

The Last Mistress
Written and directed by Catherine Breillat
Starring Asia Argento, Roxane Mesquida, F-Ad Aït Aattou, Michael Lonsdale, Claude Serraute

ImageArgento and Aattou in The Last Mistress
Catherine Breillat has fearlessly chronicled the lopsided war between the sexes for three decades, from her rough-around-the-edges debut A Very Young Girl to shocking explorations of sexual politics and games-playing such as 36 Fillette, Fat Girl, Romance, and Anatomy of Hell. I don’t know the circumstances surrounding Breillat’s return to directing after a stroke in 2004, but her first film since then, The Last Mistress, is a tame costume drama that raises nary an eyebrow as it follows the turbulent, 10-year relationship of the handsome dandy Ryno de Marigny and his intensely jealous lover, Vellini.

Based on Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s scandalous 19th century novel, The Last Mistress dutifully displays the characters romantic intercourse in the context of Marigny’s betrothal to the virginal Hermangarde, an aristocrat’s daughter. Breillat was no doubt drawn to d’Aurevilly’s novel because of its unblinking dissection of 18th century hypocrisy, particularly in its treatment of women.

Vellini is by far the most colorful character in the film; instead of slinking away from de Marigny, she remains in the margins, which forces her former lover to come to terms with their mutual, fatal attraction and how it interferes with his attempt to turn “respectable” by marrying into Hermangarde’s family. To be sure, Vellini’s earthy charms win out, and de Marigny soon returns to his old ways of meeting her for assignations, even after he and Hermangarde have married.

Asia Argento, the current darling of film critics and fans of Eurotrash cinema, plays the character with her usual limited repertoire of expressions. (She has exactly two: pouting and sneering.) Newcomer Fu-ad Aït Aattou plays de Marigny as androgyny personified; his prettiness works for this role far more credibly than Argento’s weirdness works for hers.

Gorgeous Roxane Mesquida is also a limited actress, but luckily--as in her previous Breillat-directed appearances in Fat Girl and Sex Is Comedy--she doesn’t need much range to inhabit Hermangarde. The most playful parts of the film are the sardonic appearances of Hermangarde’s grandmother, the Marquise de Flers, and her old friend, the Vicomte de Prony, both played with lots of precisely calibrated eyebrow-raising by Claude Serraute and Michael Lonsdale.

Visually straightforward, The Last Mistress looks like a costume drama done on the cheap. The film takes place mostly indoors, and real French chateaus were undoubtedly used. Breillat has admitted the influence of master painters on her cinematic compositions throughout her career, and comparisons have been made to paintings by Ingres and Goya. But, in this case at least, they’re much to the film’s detriment.

The very best “intellectual” costume drama, Eric Rohmer’s The Marquise of O (1976), utilized four-square camera movements and lived-in sets and costumes to dramatic advantage; Breillat hasn’t learned that lesson, so The Last Mistress fails to find any deep or lasting meaning in this tale of debauchery.

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