Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Last Mistress

Written by Kevin Cooke
In Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress, bleeding is love, both carnal and pure, cutting skin and stigma. It transcends any societal scruples, any better judgment, leaving bare the maidenly point where love and lust quit their fight and unite. The lovers in this story, adapted from the novel by Jules Amedee Barbey d'Aurevilly, are only virginal in one respect, to be revealed and remembered in the perfection of bloodred.
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 In Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress, bleeding is love, both carnal and pure, cutting skin and stigma. It transcends any societal scruples, any better judgment, leaving bare the maidenly point where love and lust quit their fight and unite. The lovers in this story, adapted from the novel by Jules Amedee Barbey d'Aurevilly, are only virginal in one respect, to be revealed and remembered in the perfection of blood red.

Breillat has previously explored myriad forms of sexual violence: deviant, celebrated, and sometimes the combination of the two. The Last Mistress is a new chapter in this inspection, taking cues from her previous films Romance and Fat Girl. She also revisits expectations, utilizing a magician-like ability to create illusions despite the viewer’s “I’m not gonna get screwed by Breillat this time!” persistence. But pulling the carpet from under your feet goes beyond mere gimmickry in The Last Mistress. The film weaves a familiar story of infidelity on the surface, yet preys on our own passing judgments on the quality of love of friends and strangers, when we convince ourselves ignorance is intuition.

The story begins and ends, without spoiling anything, with two elder nineteenth century aristocratic French gossipers, pondering a relationship of young lovers with the frenzied lack of consciousness of an Us Weekly magazine. In fairness, the assessment is plausible with only mildly interested eyes. Ryno, a Parisian playboy on the cusp of a marriage to a society sweetheart, does a bad job having a quiet affair with a tempestuous Spanish woman ten years his senior. He seemingly uses her and perhaps all women but pledges to “make the straight play” for his new girl wonder, similar to R&B ballads of usually self-proclaimed players. Yet in flashbacks, not surprisingly, a more nuanced truth is revealed. Ryno, (well played by Fu’ad Ait Aattou, overcoming his runway looks) had started as a fed up French gigolo. When sleeping with well-to-do married women bores him, he is temporarily lost before encountering Vellini, the untamed fire of a woman who is branded into his subconscious, a creature of animalistic proportion and honesty that, once discovered, he would fail to dispossess.

Vellini is played to perfection by the actress Asia Argento, daughter of Italian horror master, Dario Argento, and perhaps Catherine Breillat’s new muse. There appears to be an ideal synchronicity to the actress and director, as if they may have been finishing each other’s thoughts on opposite sides of the lens. Argento’s impassioned rawness has been in the works for years now, from horror in the tradition of her father, like Land of The Dead, to the misbegotten, The Heart is Deceitful Beyond All Things. But never has a director honed that primitive energy into a performance of fine distinction until Breillat honed it in The Last Mistress. As Ryno falls in love with such an unlikely heroine/femme fatale, so do the camera, and eventually the viewer. The relationship ebbs and flows behind the weight of its colossal craze, so primordial as to trump convention, and possibly its ability to exist.

Breillat continues to avoid being lumped into the current French “mini-new wave,” with its Polanski obsessions so embodied in the overrated films of Francois Ozon. She maintains her own place among the top filmmakers of today, not emboldened by scene or association. At the heart of her talent is her simple ability to tell a story with such deftness that it can result in a sort of surrendered hypnosis, leaving a viewer willfully vulnerable and manipulated, guided only by the trust that something can actually be learned through this capitulation, a rarity in modern cinema.

The Last Mistress ends with the futures of the lovers indeterminate. The bond always soaring or burning, but never steady. Yet the mystery is why, through all the tumult, the characters are to be envied.

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