Asia Argento And Catherine Breillat Collaborate On A Portrait Of A Lady
Nobody casts Asia Argento to play a role; filmmakers call on her because they want to hitch a movie to an unstoppable force of nature. And French director Catherine Breillat is woman enough to embrace Argento's charisma fully, setting the Italian actress loose in The Last Mistress, a period drama that is subtly ruffled by sly anachronisms, dramatic subversion, and unmistakably contemporary sexual politics. That Mistress both superficially looks and feels like--and cannily invites the comparison to--just another costume drama in the Dangerous Liaisons or Ridicule mode is part of its dry wit. That it ends up being anything but that is its delicious treat. The problem is escapist fans of the former aren't going to enjoy the movie's probing intelligence and snooty cineastes might balk at the movie's lavish period finery.
Argento's Vellini is the illegitimate daughter of a toreador and an Italian princess, and Argento treats the role as a readymade for her own brash combination of minor European film royalty and untamed impudence. At 36, Vellini is a tad old to be a mistress in 1830s Paris--a fact the movie's source novel, Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's scandalous-when-published 1851 novel Une vieille maîtresse, makes clear in its title--but for 10 years she's occupied the desires of libertine lothario Ryno de Marigny (Raphael painting-beautiful newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou). Marigny ends the affair just prior to his marriage to noblewoman Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), although her grandmother La Marquise de Flers (a delightful Claude Sarraute) makes him confess this relationship to her over the course of a long evening. He's marrying for money, Herman-garde for love, and La Marquise wants to make sure her granddaughter doesn't end up cast off because her husband still desires another.
Marigny's story occupies a good third of Mistress--the movie is predominantly a talky affair--and Breillat treats it as both romantic flashback and storytelling nexus. Marigny's sincerity in sparing no indelicate detail to La Marquise--his pursuit of Vellini, then married to an older British gentleman; the roller-coaster highs and lows of their carnal appetites--is an effort to win her trust, and Breillat invests his memories with a version of Vellini that is sensually self-aware: She comes as a devil (not a "she-devil," she corrects) to a fancy dress party, she smokes cigars and blows manly smoke rings, she drags up in gentilehomme attire to be one of her husband's seconds when he challenges Marigny to a duel. Vellini is a very contemporary "bad girl," and Argento gets to push the stereotype to the hilt inside this more restrained setting, much more than she was able to as the hussy Comtesse du Barry in Marie Antoinette. And in a droll indecency of hairdressing, Argento spends a good portion of the movie with two strands of strategically curved hair flauntingly outlining the shape of an ample bottom on her forehead.
Vellini feels very much a part of Breillat's sexuality-exploring women, from 36 Fillete to Romance and Fat Girl. But the French director is being sly here, and she achieves it in such an understated manner that it feels almost inconsequential. Many of Mistress' scenes, compositions, and details are informed by cinematic and art history but aren't trying to re-create or allude to them. Breillat doesn't pander: She assumes that moviegoers see movies--and, in general, are active participants in culture--and is confident that scenes that quietly refer to other movies, compositions that recall Goya paintings, or inversions of reliable tropes don't need to be boldface-framed for the cheap seats. So while she might not expect everybody to catch that a parlor song is a jaunty Ralph Benatzky tune from a 1937 Douglas Sirk movie--I had to poke around before identifying the source--she does permit you to recognize the tune is out of place in early 19th century France. She lets you glean what you wish from recognizing that a framing title card claiming that the movie is set during the century of Choderlos de Laclos--Dangerous Liaison's 18th-century author--is a purposeful misdirection. Breillat's undeniably modern sensibility frames this story, adding metatextual layers to the otherwise familiar proceedings.
It's a genre manipulation that subtly eases the movie out of its genre and into an almost norish milieu after Marigny and Hermangarde marry, but just who is the sexual hunter and who is the prey here? With a supporting cast that includes the mirthfully bemused Sarraute and Michael Lonsdale as a droll aristocratic meddler, The Last Mistress works perfectly well as a scheming costume drama. But as an entertainingly fearless examination of gender politics, it's something much more human and complex than mere divertissement.