For some mysterious reason, Catherine Breillat's newest film, The Last Mistress, was chosen as the Opening Night Feature for the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival. It's probably the same mysterious reason that caused most critics to praise Breillat's intolerable Fat Girl (2001). It's a reason I'll never understand. I usually love filmmakers who tackle their personal demons in film, but Breillat is different in several ways. She's a nutcase who doesn't admit to her personal demons so much as she tries to analyze them (self-analysis is always a bad idea). She raises the intellectual (or pretentiousness) level of her films rather than wallowing bodily in anything (her films have lots of sex, but it's cold and judgmental). And through it all, her films seem to have a kind of punishing contempt for everyone, her characters, critics and audience included.
However, The Last Mistress is the most enjoyable of the three Breillat films I've seen. It works on a gut level of sexual turmoil that her other films never approach, although I suspect that most of the film's success lies more with star Asia Argento than with Breillat. Argento is the exact opposite of someone like Breillat; she's a corporeal creature, a lithe force of nature. You can't even really call what she does acting. It's more like she explodes onscreen in a shitstorm of lust, blood, and unspeakable emotions made flesh. Her first appearance has her lying invitingly horizontal on a couch, and you envy the pillows. Director and actress have a meeting of minds in only one scene, the most purely Breillat-ian scene in the film: Argento leaps upon the bloody body of her lover, licks the blood out of his gunshot wounds and rises, sneering and screaming with the red, hot liquid dribbling down her chin. It's not exactly the bloody tampon teabag image from Breillat's Anatomy of Hell (2004), but it'll do.
Adapted from a book by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, The Last Mistress is set in the 19th century. Argento (who speaks French along with Italian and English) stars as Vellini, a Spanish-born beauty. Vellini is longtime mistress of Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou). Ryno decides to break up with her, go legit and marry blonde Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). On the eve of the wedding, he comes clean and narrates his entire illicit history to Hermangarde's grandmother, Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute). Ms. Sarraute gives a delightful performance, draping her leg over one side of a chair while listening to Ryno's tale of desire. But Vellini's lusty clutches may be too much for Ryno, even in wedlock. Marriage vows obviously don't mean much to the two lovers; Ryno initially pursued Vellini when she was already married. Despite the lavish costumes -- and one intriguing, double-curled hairdo on Ms. Argento -- Breillat delivers on her reputation with several full-blooded sex scenes. But the real key to the film is the sane, sober peanut gallery, the supporting characters who comment upon and worry about the situation. They're mainly older, well-fed aristocrats with a driven-in sense of propriety and decorum.
Falling back on this occasional sense of order helps the film from falling too far into ugly, exhausting depravity, such as Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon (1992) did. Breillat manages to keep Vellini and Ryno attracted to one another throughout the story, and their irresistible allure is palpable. Their relationship has some seriously unhealthy ups and downs, such as when Vellini playfully decides to draw Ryno's blood during a perfectly harmless picnic lunch. One of them seems to viciously hate the other at any given time, but it only turns up the heat. Actor Fu'ad Ait Aattou is a newcomer to movies, and he has that typical pretty-boy face and lack of personality that movies seem to like so much these days. Normally, Breillat has little use for healthy male sexuality in her films, but astonishingly, though Breillat could have chewed up the newcomer like so much breakfast, she gives him a break and elevates him to even ground with Argento. It's the first time I've seen Breillat make a breakthrough in her one-woman shrink sessions. (She reportedly suffered and has recovered from a terrible stroke, which may have changed her outlook somewhat.)
Finally, there's the costume movie genre trappings to deal with, and though I'm the first one to sneer at the genre's stuffy, self-important signposts, Breillat has done an admirable job of pumping some life into the half-dead format. Of course, most of the stuffy, secured characters wear the traditional garb in the same old uncomfortable way. The film opens on two minor characters dressed in waistcoats, starched collars, lavish dresses and other types of puffy frocks, eating a rich dinner and gossiping about the young couple(s). The scene is like an April Fool's joke, getting us to sigh and start trying to follow the who's-who of the story as they sit around rooms or walk across country estates. But then Argento makes her entrance and directly clashes with them all. She wears her costumes like a raised middle finger, inviting, or daring someone to come along and tear them off.