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

Mother of Tears (La terza madre)


Mother of Tears

Not a position you want to find yourself in when making a movie for Dario Argento.

(2007) Supernatural Horror (Mitropoulos) Asia Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Udo Kier, Moran Atias, Adam James, Cristian Solimeno, Valeria Cavalli, Philippe Leroy, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Robert Madison, Jun Ichikawa, Tomasso Banfi., Paolo Stella Directed by Dario Argento

 

Dario Argento is as highly regarded in the horror community as Judd Apatow is in the comedy community; only he doesn’t have the worldwide hits that Apatow does. Still, his works – including Suspiria, Inferno and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage are some of the most influential horror films ever made. The first two are also the first two segments of a fairly informal trilogy known as the Three Mothers trilogy, concerning powerful witches. This new one comes nearly 20 years after the last.

Sarah Mandy (Argento) is an American art expert working in an Italian museum when an ancient Etruscan vase is unearthed in an Italian cemetery. The urn is unremarkable but it has a tunic in it and attached is a tablet warning of an ancient evil – a warning which in movies like this always go unheeded. An innocent art historian meets a particularly gruesome death because of it.

That’s not the last particularly gruesome death that is to come. Soon, it becomes clear that a thousand year old witch – Mater Lachrimarum – has risen to fill the tunic with a lithe, sexy body that doesn’t look a day over 25. She begins to accrue acolytes, sexy witches who look like they stepped out of a circa 1984 Whitesnake video and all sorts of mayhem begins to occur. Women toss their babies off of bridges, men commit suicide, women are raped and murdered. All in a day’s work.

Sarah discovers that her mom (Nicolodi) was a witch of uncommon power and that she has inherited her mother’s gifts. She manages to resurrect the spirit of her mom who guides her into battle, along with a disbelieving Italian detective (Solimeno) and a world-weary priest (Kier) who must stop the witch before Rome falls a second time – and with it the Western World.

This is more closely related to Suspiria and Inferno than Inferno was to Suspiria – in all likelihood Inferno wasn’t originally intended as a direct sequel to Suspiria, it just played in the same sandbox. Here, there is a definite connection to both films and in some ways that makes it more enjoyable.

Asia Argento, the director’s daughter, has become quite a leading lady in her own right, having done such movies as xXx and  Marie Antoinette. She is solid here in a role that isn’t perhaps as well-defined as some of her better performances but she gives a good try, turning Sarah into a rip-snorting ass-kicking horror heroine, not so much a scream queen (although she does some of that) as she is a kick you in the spleen queen.

The murders and mayhem are pretty much over-the-top although not as lovingly dwelled on as the traps in the Saw movies or the torture in the Hostel movies. The gore here is graphic and gruesome but you don’t get the sense that there is an almost pornographic lust for it – the gore serves its purpose only and nothing else.

The plot is pretty scattershot and there are times when the ludicrous alarms are well-sounded, such as when a Japanese follows Sarah and must be stopped by the doors of a train – not once but several times. Nothing exceeds like excess.

Still, Argento is masterful at framing shots, setting a mood and using color and texture in his films to help create an atmosphere that is second to none and all of that is in use here, even though today’s digital filmmaking is a bit more clinical looking than the film stocks and sets of yesteryear, Argento still manages to create the right mood of eeriness and suspense.

This isn’t his best work by any stretch of the imagination but this isn’t his worst either. It’s a welcome return to a series that has needed some closure – and needed some connective tissue as well. Mother of Tears provides both.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Argento man – one of the best horror filmmakers of all time. Even his weaker attempts are better than most of  his peer’s best efforts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This isn’t one of Argento’s best. The plot stretches logic from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic, gruesome violence, plenty of bad words and a lot of sexuality and nudity. Perfect grindhouse/drive-in fun..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daria Nicolodi is Asia Argento’s mother in real life as well.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the legendary giallo director hints at a prequel to the Three Mothers trilogy somewhere down the line.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Act of Valor