The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse)

The Last Mistress

Asia Argento gets her Spanish on.

(2007) Drama (IFC) Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, Roxanne Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, Anne Parillaud, Jean-Philippe Tesse, Sarah Pratt, Amira Casar, Lio, Isabelle Renauld, Lea Seydoux, Nicholas Hawtrey, Caroline Ducey. Directed by Catherine Breillat

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the human heart is a tricky thing. Not everything is easy to assess, quantify and analyze when it comes to human emotions. Not everything makes logical sense; we can only follow our feelings and hope they lead us on some sensible course that will arrive at our eventual happiness. It doesn’t always turn out that way though.

Ryno de Marigny (Aattou) is about to get married to the beautiful Hermangarde (Mesquida), granddaughter of the Marquise de Flers (Sarraute). It is 1835, during the reign of the last French King. Ryno has been a bit of a libertine so it turns more than a few heads and gets some tongues to wagging when the Marquise allows the engagement of her beloved granddaughter to such a notorious rake as Ryno, who is a son of a noble house but has fallen on hard times. The marriage to the wealthy Hermangarde is extremely advantageous to him.

The Marquise is fully aware of Ryno’s reputation however and invites him (more of a command actually) over one night to talk. She has heard of his most scandalous affair and wants to know if he has given the relationship up before he marries. She demands he tell her about the relationship in detail and so he does.

Ryno met La Vellini (Argento) at a party. By then she was married to the ineffectual Sir Reginald (Hawtrey) and was already an accomplished courtesan. At first they don’t take to each other; he calls her a mongrel for her Spanish-Italian heritage and she thinks of him as a haughty little boy. Then in fine romantic fashion the two who despise each other so much find themselves attracted as two lovers have never been. This leads to a duel between Ryno and Sir Reginald in which Ryno is gravely wounded. Of course, La Vellini flies to his side and nurses him to health, even sucking the blood from his wound so great is her passion for him.

This leads to a torrid affair that has all of Paris talking, particularly a pair of gossipers (Lonsdale and Moreau) who have a certain French flair for seeing the ridiculousness in their passion. Still Ryno knows that he must end the affair with La Vellini. However, La Vellini is the sort of woman who ends things on her terms – and at the moment her terms are far from having been met.

Based on what was at the time a scandalous novel by the French writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly written in 1851, noted French director Breillat has put together what is unusual for her, a period piece. Breillat is noted for her films that ooze sexuality but show sex in a more realistic fashion; there is sweat and not moisture, grunting and not moaning, bodies contorted into awkward shape and little grace. It is more like the act itself without the sentimentality that Hollywood (and yes, French films as well) depict the act with.

She also has a penchant for using non-professional actors and she’s spotted a good one in Aattou. His boyish looks are perfect for the role physically and his performance nicely recalls the actions and sentiments of a down-on-his-heel noble, mid-19th century style. As is not uncommon with European films, there is far more dialogue than in their American cousins and that is true particularly here with much of the action taking place in drawing rooms and Aattou handles the conversations well; they don’t seem forced.

Argento has been criticized for not being a great actress but I have found her to be a solid actress. I have yet to see a great performance from her true, but it is rare to see a truly bad performance from her either and she is quite good here. I honestly can’t fault her performance which is very sexually charged; even in the mannered environment of that time and that place, she comes off as highly sexual which is rare for movies which tend to make the people of that time kind of sexless. La Vellini would be a hot, sexy woman in any era.

The movie, like many European films, is paced at a rather slower pace than American audiences are used to so be aware of that. There are certainly some frenetic moments but for the most part younger audiences might not have the patience to sit through this.

Sarraute, who has been a journalist for some 50 years although was quite an accomplished actress at one time, makes a rare screen appearance of late and makes the most of it. I really enjoyed the warmth and depth she brought to the Marquise; as Roger Ebert so perceptively put it, she’s the kind of movie character whose salon you’d love to hang out in with her, just having conversations about the indignities of life.

Overall I really loved this movie a lot. It’s sexy but not pornographic – a movie about sexual obsession has to have some sex in it after all. But it’s the rich characterization of the main participants in the drama that held my attention; the plot is a bit on the soapy side but no matter. This is wonderful drawing room filmmaking at its very best.

WHY RENT THIS: Very sexy. Nice period piece. Sarraute, Argento and Aattou are mesmerizing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A very leisurely pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and some brief nudity as well as a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director discovered Aattou in a Parisian cafe; up until that point he had no professional acting experience.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $6M production budget; the movie didn’t make back its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

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