Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Last Mistress ***

Director: Catherine Breillat
Cast: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida
Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale

After a career where she's explored sexual behavior and pushed it to its limits, staying mostly on a cerebral level, provocateur director Catherine Breillat chooses a more mainstream approach and perhaps for the first time hints at entertainment with her adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's novel about doomed love, destructive relationships and yes, sex.
Fu'ad Ait Aattou plays Ryno de Marigny; a notorious libertine engaged to the granddaughter (Mesquida) of the influential Marquise de Flers (Sarraute).
When she learns of his relationship with Spanish courtesan Madame Vellini (Argento) she asks her grandson to be to come clean.
He does, and while reaffirming her that everything is over between the two of them, tells the Marquise the story of how they met and why they ended their affair.
In this film Breillat puts her keen visual sense to wonderful use and drawing inspiration from art forms of the era creates a truly luscious movie to watch.
The lead actors seem to be carved out of marble; the first time we see Argento she's a Goya painting come to life.
The director, who has rarely been so inviting, takes her time to seduce us, providing the plot with a charming structure and a superb ensemble.
Argento seems to be having the time of her life encompassing this she-devil (she even dresses like the devil at some point) who nobody seems to like, but everyone falls for.
She's sensual in a unique way, but mostly becomes animalistic (Vellini is the illegitimate daughter of an Italian Princess and a Spanish matador) as she turns Ryno into both her prey and predator.
However there is one moment when Vellini suffers a personal tragedy and here Argento turns all this sexuality into a harrowing kind of pain that the rest of her performance never lives up to.
Aattou is absolutely gorgeous to look at; with his cherub like face Breillat makes an interesting point about what makes men and women as distant from each other as they're the same (she also stresses out this in a church sermon scene).
Aattou makes out of Ryno someone we believe, whether it's the eternal love and sweetness he promises his wife to be or the violent, inexplicably attractive creature he becomes with Vellini.
The film also has some charming supporting parts in the form of Moreau and Lonsdale, who play old friends through which we learn what the rest of society thinks about the scandalous leads.
When the film begins Lonsdale's Vicomte de Prony acknowledges he hopes "to provoke a scandal" as he goes to Vellini's house with gossip.
It is hinted at us that these forms of social games where perhaps the most interesting kind of entertainment these people had, one that we don't really need any more, or do we?
The Marquise de Flers tells Ryno that "fireplace stories are the balls of old age" as she sits down for his story and perhaps part of what makes him become obliged to her is the need to satisfy her thirst for entertainment.
During one scene we see the Marquise has surrendered to Ryno's tale, she is almost lying on her couch, with an almost empty glass of port (which she switched from the tea she begins with).
Sarraute, who gives perhaps the most delicious performance in the film, then becomes a metaphor for the audience who comes to the cinema to be enthralled.
Breillat who takes the form of Ryno is at first unsure that we are enjoying what she offers and when he pauses to ask if he shall procede, the Marquis doesn't hesitate to encourage him.
As if we were planning to go home without every lurid detail of his story with Vellini.
The tale, pointless as it may seem sets the tone, to what later becomes a very Breillat twist where we realize that like Vellini, the director hasn't fully surrendered to us.
She tried to please us, but this is still her show and she will make sure to get the last wink.

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