Catherine Breillat’s characters wear their thoughts rather than their hearts on their sleeves, and as The Last Mistress reveals, their opinions about sex, love, and the world ring more naturally within a period setting. Which is not to say they’re more interesting. The location is Paris and the year is 1835, when the bourgeois are so bored that they rant about such things as capriciousness and the pure sin of gluttony (the film begins with the horrific sight of Michael Lonsdale devouring a noticeably pink piece of chicken) in order to keep sane. Breillat is not the first artist to acknowledge how the idle blow off steam, but few have dared to admit that this time period, before the middle class and their uptight morals took over, was a hotbed of unapologetic sexual expression. Her name is Vellini (Asia Argento), a French-Spanish mutt who may be a distant relative of Marlene Dietrich’s Concha Perez, and his is Ryno de Marigny (newcomer Fu’ad Ait Aatou), a dandy at once repulsed and smitten by her sexual agency. To the gossip-mongering grandmother of his wife-to-be, blond and innocent Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), Ryno explains the many ups and downs of his relationship to Vellini, from their meet-ugly outside a café to the horrifying death of their daughter during a sojourn in Algeria. Argento is less actress than force of nature, and she gives The Last Mistress its pulse, as in the great scene where Vellini barges into Ryno’s sickbed to lick the bloody wound from which a doctor has pulled a bullet, or the even greater Algerian-set one, during which the “moorish” minx mounts Ryno in the desert sand, screaming in agonizing pain as their daughter’s putrid body burns to a crisp on a funeral pyre. These great scenes deepen otherwise flat characters, and their adrenaline rush dignifies what is otherwise a rather predictable costume drama about l’amour fou and the difficulty a man has getting a dangerous woman out of his system.
- IFC First Take
- 114 min
- Catherine Breillat
- Catherine Breillat
- Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aatou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale
- Slant is reaching more readers than ever before, but advertising revenue across the Internet is falling fast, hitting independently owned and operated publications like ours the hardest. We’ve watched many of our fellow media sites fall by the way side in recent years, but we’re determined to stick around.
We’ve never asked our readers for financial support before, and we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees. If you like what we do, however, please consider becoming a Slant patron.
You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal: