From a distance, Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress looks like a Merchant Ivory production, until you feel all sorts of pungent sexual tension ready to erupt through the costume-drama gentility. Similarly, Breillat in person is soft-spoken and courteous, a gracious host, and an easy laugher. It’s not until I notice her piercing gaze as I listen to the translator that I sense the prickly, frequently invasive scrutiny familiar to viewers of Romance, Fat Girl, and Anatomy of Hell. Like the filmmaker in the self-reflexive Sex Is Comedy, Breillat demands the same concentration from interviewers that she does from her subjects. I spoke to her at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival (where Last Mistress was the opening-night film) about literary adaptations, the formidable force that is Asia Argento, and French cinema’s shortage of matinee idols.
So. A period piece.
Same as any other kind of film. You do have to prepare ahead for your shots, be much more precise in your framing. It’s a bit of a pain because you also have to hide the signs of modernity, like outlets on the floor, for example. Many little things take longer to get ready. Several actresses I worked with in earlier films, such as Anne Parillaud and Amira Casar, came in for cameos in The Last Mistress, and even though they were in only one shot or one scene, we needed hair tests and costume fittings. There’s less of the spontaneity that I usually like in my sets. You have to plan ahead, otherwise changes can screw up the budget.
The opening subtitle situates the story in “the age of [Choderlos de] Laclos.” It’s clearly an age coming to an end, however.
Yes, we sense it is the last hurrah of the aristocracy. The Marquise de Flers says in the film that “in our day we had our hearts above our morals.” It was an epoch where the characters’ sense of morality could overlook certain things; they could say, “Yes, this young man is a good person despite the things he’s done.” The new bourgeoisie, on the other hand, is far more hypocritical and stuck in its prejudices. The aristocrats, especially in the Laclos works, display massive panache in their affairs: If they ruined themselves, they would do it with flair. The rise of the bourgeoisie, which we can still feel, wiped out even this sense of candor.
Honor was still a reason to die for.
It was a period of duels. People would risk their lives for honor, and lifting your pistol during a confrontation and shooting into the air could be a noble gesture. Fortunately, the pistols weren’t very precise at the time. [laughs]
You get the feeling seduction was almost one of the classical arts of the period, like painting and music.
Love was what gave life its flavor. Like all the other arts, it’s wrapped in conventions and rituals.
You told me after last night’s screening about the link between the rise of the bourgeoisie and the rise of censorship.
They both hold on to the same set of values, a kind of fake sense of morality is at their root. Censorship forbids things, but cannot justify why some things are acceptable while others are not. I’ve always seen censors as a kind of mafia.
Tell me about working with Asia Argento.
I’ll give you a comparison. Imagine you’re a potter, but instead of working with clay, you’re molding lava.
Young women in your films are frequently struggling with their bodies and sexuality. Vellini [Argento’s character, the titular mistress] feels entirely at ease with her body, however.
That’s how she’s presented in the d’Aurevilly novel, and that’s very much how I wanted Asia. Her character has traces of Spain and North Africa in her. The way she lies on a sofa or licks the blood from a wound—I wanted every expression to be very physical.
Her character is a kind of rupturing force. You have all these very genteel compositions, and she tears through them.
That’s why a lot of male critics see her as a femme fatale.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette…
I haven’t seen it yet. Coppola was shooting her scenes around the time I went into pre-production for my film. We were going to shoot a scene at the opera after she was done with hers. She had 500 extras for one sequence alone. I wouldn’t know what to do with such extravagance.
Argento is in both movies, and a friend told me Coppola wanted Argento to tear through Marie Antoinette the way she did in your film.
Asia herself is an unchained personality. To get that quality on the screen, ironically, you have to chain her down. I had to scare her a bit. It’s usually the exact opposite: She often intimidates people.
You mean with her intensity?
Yes, and it bores her a little when people react the same. So when she herself is terrified, she’s very happy and ready to collaborate.
What about Fu’ad Ait Aattou [as Ryno de Marigny]? He very much has that femininity that Vellini prefers: She says, “I hate everything feminine. Except in men.”
That’s not my line, that’s right out of the novel! [laughs] He appeared all of a sudden when I was preparing a different film. I saw him at a sidewalk café, and I pointed him out to my assistant director. “There’s Ryno de Marigny! He’s mine!” For this part I needed a young Alain Delon, the Delon of Visconti’s The Leopard. There are no such leading men in France nowadays, so I had to reconstruct one. We’ve no matinee idols in French cinema today, only Gérard Depardieu and the Depardieu wannabes. Ugly leading men—that’s the French taste, I suppose. Just as I was about to send my assistant director after Fu’ad, he came over, asked if I was the director of Romance, and gave me his phone number, all of this with extraordinary elegance. Just what the character called for.
Did you work with the actors to sustain the tension between Vellini and Ryno?
First of all, they hated each other. [laughs] I was relieved: I realized both of them belonged to me, because they did not belong to each other. We took it from there. As a general rule, I hate when my actors like each other.
I believe this is your first film adapted from somebody else’s work. And from a male writer, no less.
I had to make it my own. You can’t be too reverent in adapting a work of literature, even though I felt there were a great many affinities between d’Aurevilly and myself. He was a scandalous writer in his day, and that’s how I like to see myself today, if I may put modesty aside for a moment.
I saw the Marquise de Flers as almost a stand-in for you. A sort of amused, detached observer from a different period.
An interesting idea. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but I do like this image of the old lady who laughs like a little girl. That’s me on the set.
Lastly, I saw a special “merci” to Claire Denis at the end of the credits.
After I had my stroke, the film company insurers asked me to name another director that would take over the production if I had physical problems and couldn’t complete the project. The only person I could ever consider for that was Claire Denis. I knew that if she shot the film, I could use her images after I had recovered. Her way of working is also very physical, even if her work is rawer, while mine tends to be about enchantment. Both of us are after human truths and mysteries.