Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 05, 2007 1:43 pm 
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Asia Argento and Fu'ad Aït Aattou in Une vieille maîtresse

Twisting conventions in high style

Breillat's films are mostly small budget contemporary provocations with a feminist bent. This one, her twelfth, she says cost as much as ten previous ones and is a costume drama based on a controversial novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly (1808-1889). This is a bit confusing: the film begins by saying it's the century of Choderlos de Laclos (author of Dangerous Liaisons). but his famous work was written in 1782, and the action of d'Aurevilly's novel is set in 1835. The point is, the story is about the French aristocracy, and in the early nineteenth century its members still believed in and lived by the libertinism of Laclos.

In fact The Last Mistress (Une vieille maitresse) is a transitional story that links the two centuries and in a sense presents a romantic conception of the eighteenth century. Ryno de Marigny (beautiful newcomer Fu'ad Aït Aattou) is a high born young man who has squandered his wealth on his Spanish mistress, the willful Vellini (Asia Argento, in her element), with whom he's been involved for ten years. Allocine calls Ryno "a kind of romantic Valmont." But that's just it: there was nothing romantic about de Laclos' cruel and manipulative Valmont and Ryno is a new post-eighteenth-century conception of the eighteenth-century libertine that is titillated by his freedom but adds the emotional dressing of romantic passion. Breillat obviously loves this combination, is at home with it, and has given it deliriously appropriate treatment in this minor but beautiful, lush, and thoroughly enjoyable film.

The Breillat touch is perhaps most visible in the love-making scenes between Vellini and Ryno, in which there is much nudity and specificity of physical detail. Fu'ad Aït Aattou has pale skin and bigger lips than Asia Argento. By intention, both are androgynous; this is Breillat's conception of Choderlos de Laclos's and d'Aurevilly's libertines. The two actors are perfectly matched for this. Vellini is the aggressor; it is she who makes love with Ryno, using him like a lovely male statue made of alabaster. He is passionate like a romantic lover, however: that is, he's hung up on her forever, no matter what he tries. Early on, he fights a duel with her English husband and is wounded in the shoulder. The sex sequences are specific and fleshy as in no other costume drama, but Breillat is not creating an anachronistic work. As she explained in the NYFF press Q&A, she is passionate about the quality of her period detail and bought tons of lush materials and costumes. The dress, the jewelry, and the interiors are all completely authentic, and there is a rich color scheme in which red and green and yellow predominate. Without seeming over-glossy (it's not eye-candy like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette), The Last Mistress is a pleasure to look at. It's also a pleasure to listen to, with its choice use of ornate and witty language. Oldtimer Michael Lonsdale as the gossipy Vicomte de Prony particularly relishes his well-turned phrases.

As the story gets under way, Ryno has now found a wife, the beautiful young blonde noblewoman Hermangarde (Breillat regular Roxane Mesquida), and he's in love with her, and tired of Villini. Hermangarde's grandmother, the Marquise de Flers (non-actress Claude Sarraute, daughter of novelist Nathalie) is responsible for vetting Ryno, and in a lengthy sequence that's the heart of the film, he confesses to her everything about his relationship with Vellini. After much has been told (and shown on screen) in an amusing moment we see the Marquise reclining low in her seat: she is exhausted, but entranced. She wants to hear every detail. The Marquise is of course, of the older generation--a real Choderlos de Laclos lady. For her, the information that Ryno is a true libertine is proof that he is reliable, not an unknown quantity. And the cards are on the table. He'll do.

Rybno has every intention of having done with Vellini, and in a scene we've observed before his confession, he's made love with her one last time and they've said their adieus and adioses. Afrter his marriage, which we don't see, Ryno and Hermangarde live in a castle by the sea--so that he can avoid the temptations of Paris. Velllini waits four months, and then she appears. And once she is in front of Ryno, despite his professions of being fed up with her, he can't resist her.

There are several scenes in which Vellini draws blood from Ryno and licks it up: hints or Ms. Argento's father's films?

Part of the New York Film Festival 2007. Three years after a stroke, Breillat is clearly in fine form--never better--and this is a long-awaited (by her) labor of love.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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