Devoid of shock murders, genital close-ups or bodily discharges (save one abortion scene that still pales in comparison to the one in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), The Last Mistress, Catherine Breillat’s first period picture, is less scandalous than any of her recent films, but it proves to be just as engaged with the impossibility of heterosexual relations and the vagaries of desire.
Based on a then-sensational 19th century novel by Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, the milieu is one of elegantly costumed French aristocracy whose veneer of high morals barely conceals a sexual economy of infidelity and hypocrisy. While bodice-ripping historical romances are nothing new, Breillat brings her indelible mix of braininess and rawness; mixing verbal and physical sexual exchanges, she aims both high and low where other films settle for a tastefully soft-core middle.
The film begins and ends with a middle-aged couple (Yolande Moreau and the ever-delightful Michael Lonsdale) who tolerate each other chiefly through fancy dinners and gossip, effectively framing the romantic intrigues recounted in between within a larger social context. That one item of gossip involves the husband’s Spanish mistress adds an intriguing layer of openness to the proceedings, presenting morality as a tool more strategically deployed than consistently upheld. Indeed, the wife is more concerned that the mistress in question is also involved with Ryno de Marigny (newcomer Fu’ad Ait Aattou) the fiancé of her virginal niece (Roxanne Mesquida). The niece’s grandmother, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), summons the fiancé to give a full account of his dalliances with the lady of ill repute, to which he offers his epic tale of sexual power plays, infidelity and death.
Undoubtedly, the driving force of these proceedings is Asia Argento as Vellini, a bastard Spanish-French maiden turned reputable by wedding an aged English fop, but whose essential wildness remains untamed. Argento, whose wordless gaze is enough to inspire hours of illicit thoughts, doesn’t have to do much to convey wantonness; her mere appearance at an opera in a lacy vermilion dress or her Marlene Dietrich-style performance of the English bar tune “Yes Sir” posits her as a woman centuries ahead of her time. Ryno and Vellini greet each other with looks of lustful reproachment, leading him to deep throat her within plain sight of her husband. When Ryno is injured in the subsequent duel, Vellini leaps upon his sickbed to lick his wounds. They run off to Tunisia, carrying with them the hopes of being one of the few sexually and socially liberated couples of the pre-Victorian era. But disaster befalls them in their attempts to start a life and family together, leading to a raw, al fresco sex scene of stark mournfulness. By this point the film establishes emotional stakes that outstrip your run-of-the-mill costume romp.
Ryno relays all of this to the Marquise with full candor and, pleased to find someone whose experiences stretch beyond the safe confines of respectable mediocrity, she grants him her granddaughter’s hand with the ironic intention that he can find true love through the socially acceptable role of a dutiful husband. (It’s as if the Marquise was simultaneously rewarding and forgiving Ryno for his exploits.) It’s surprising that the Marquise, in all her wisdom, would believe Ryno’s assurances that Vellini is out of his life for good, for she soon turns up, stalking the young man as he begins a new life with his already-pregnant wife at a remote seaside estate.
The Last Mistress fascinatingly juggles perspectives: it is as much about outsiders’ judgmental understanding and accounting of the intimate behavior of others as it is about the deep-rooted relevance for the first-hand participants of a sexual relationship. The film ends with a simultaneous tragedy and triumph, as the connection between the now-married Ryno and his unrelenting mistress becomes socially normalized, both for them and for everyone in touch with them. True love in both its conventional and radical manifestations cancel each other out in an uneasy cease-fire. Perhaps the most provocative aspect of these pitiable mortals’ scandalous quest for romance is that it ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker based in New York City. He has written for Cinema-Scope, The Chicago Reader, Senses of Cinema and Slant. His website is www.alsolikelife.com.