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Last Mistress, The (Une Vieille Maitress)

dir: Catherine Breillat
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I swore off ever sitting through and enduring one of Breillat’s films ever again several years ago, but a free preview ticket pulled me back in to her loathsome cinematic world. Also, reviews saying this was nothing like her earlier monstrosities sucked me in as well.

Her flicks Romance and Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell) convinced me not only that I shouldn’t watch any future films of hers, but that I never wanted to watch any films ever again. Unfortunately for you, like all my other promises and heartfelt vows, this one fell apart swiftly after. I relented, I gave in, because the prospect of watching one of her excruciating films proved too tantalising to me.

Une Vieille Maîtresse is Breillat’s first foray into period piece filmmaking, whereby she’s also working on a screenplay adapted from the novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly. It is set just after, we are told several times, the era of Choderlos de Laclos and Dangerous Liaisons. The only characters old enough to remember the libertine excesses of those days are now themselves too old to be cavorting around themselves. But they remember enough of those licentious times to be able to counsel the next generations.

The Marquise de Flors (Claude Saurette) is about to marry her beloved granddaughter Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) to a notorious rake and libertine, Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Attou). Ryno is a creature so beautiful and so angelic that his bearing and his full-lipped smiles can only be hiding a truly monstrous interior.

Concerned about tales told by similarly ancient antediluvian aristocrats, the Marquise asks for a full accounting from Ryno of his alleged affair with the courtesan Vellini (Asia Argento). What concerns the Marquise is that Ryno’s affair with this Spanish woman has gone on far longer than such liaisons, whether to do with mistresses or wives, are supposed to.

So begins Ryno’s tale of lust, love, hate and the misery that only two people bound by a shared torturous history can know.

Asia Argento is a particular revelation as Vellini. She is brutishly ugly and utterly coarse in her manipulations, but her initial loathing of Ryno ten years previous sets the basis for their obsessive love. For you see Ryno is of the type of man who has absolute contempt for the women he seduces. When Vellini, a woman he dismisses as an ugly mutt, rejects his advances, he embarks on a months-long process to get into her corsets that results nearly in his death.

He spins out his tale as if it is so much thread to the willing ears of the Marquise de Flors, who hangs on his every word over the course of the night. She wants to believe so much that Ryno has been so chastened by his experiences, or that he has become so jaded to the pleasures of the flesh that he will, against all logic, somehow be able to remain faithful and true to Hermangarde. Jeez, how goddamn gullible can these people be?

The great surprise for me is that the story is, at least initially, told in such a breezy and charming manner. It is told in a way far more amusing and entertaining that anything I thought Breillat was capable of.

But then a shift occurs, a fundamental, tectonic shift. It occurs just after the scene where Ryno and Vellini’s husband take part in a duel. When Vellini rushes into the room and drinks the blood from the wound, that’s when the dark shift in dynamics begins.

Of course, the story then gets bogged down in the mechanics of sex, of the fundamental incompatibility between the sexes that Breillat trumpets in every flick, the sheer prettiness of Ryno as a counterbalance to the raw womanliness of Vellini, that it becomes less of a story and more of a standard Breillat treatise. Like an essay on beauty being screeched at you by Joan Rivers.

Until it gets to that stage, it remains a well acted and well made flick that is enjoyable for all the right reasons. Like most relationships, it starts as a comedy and ends up as a profound tragedy, based on the idea that people are kept together over the years by bonds far stronger than love. Love, if it comes at all, is fleeting, and barely remembered even by those who experienced it together.

As a costume drama, if that’s the kind of stuff that matters to you, the look of the flick is fine, with good use of period locations, clothing and people who look to be living suitably short and brutish lives. Asia, daughter of the notorious (and vastly overrated) Italian director Dario Argento, does well with a part I’m sure most people would have thought would have been beyond her. Seeing as she is probably the skankiest looking woman working today in the non-porn movie industry, seeing her embody this character so well is quite inspiring.

She seems at the moment to be making more films in front of the camera rather than behind as the director, at least these days, but it’s good to see her playing something other than whores and drug addicts. Her limited time in the recent Marie Antoinette feature as the evil Madame du Barry, who never actually did anything, and her role here indicate that maybe period pieces are where her talents lie, playing evil scheming skanks throughout history.

Vellini is a strange mixture of the base and the sublime, the animal and the maternal, the monstrous and the loving, to the extent where Ryno sometimes fades into her, both conceptually and literally. She dominates him in her sex scenes, making him seem almost an unwilling participant who yet cannot tear himself away from her. Their sex scenes are as important as any other scenes in the film, some being more crucial than fifteen minutes of dialogue would be. The sex scene in the desert after they both suffer an incalculable loss is as revealing and exploratory of the film’s themes as anything else could possibly manage in the same amount of time.

Once Ryno’s tale is told to the edge-of-her-seat grandmother, the story’s last act then begins, as the marriage occurs, and we see the aftermath of all these actions. It would be fair to say that the pacing falls apart completely in this section, perhaps draining a lot of the energy out of the story. There are long scenes where Breillat’s camera seems to be doing nothing more than filming Attou’s girlish face just for the sake of it, or filming the coast of wherever that castle is located.

This isn’t a drama, or a melodrama, or a romantic thriller filled with intrigue over the fate of star-crossed lovers. Actually, it probably is a drama. It is hard to know who to hope achieves anything approximating happiness out of this. Ryno is a former libertine who has been hollowed out by his experiences, even by the tender age of 30, who is so empty as to have been reduced to a shell of a man. He is incapable of being the man his wife needs him to be, he is incapable of staying away from Vellini, and neither gives him any real lasting pleasure.

Vellini does what she wants because her raw need cannot be diverted or gainsaid. She is what she is, and she makes Ryno her tormentor and her willing victim because she cannot function any other way. Eventually, it becomes chilling to behold.

It is a solidly entertaining, archly arch flick about sexual or emotional obsession (for at least half of its length) and the impossibility of love, though it’s nowhere near as captivating as, say, In the Realm of the Senses or a few other flicks of a similar bent. And the allusions to Dangerous Liaisons are more deceptive than descriptive. The two stories couldn’t be more dissimilar.

Still, I was very surprised that I enjoyed the flick as much as I did. Especially considering the fact that Breillat made it. This is, after all, a woman who made a film called Romance that had none in it, a flick called Sex is Comedy without anything sexy or funny in it, and Anatomy of Hell, which contended that, above all else, all men hate all women.

Compared to all of that crap, An Old Mistress is a pleasant and entertaining (yet disturbing) walk in the park

8 times Asia Argento went to all the trouble to take out her nipple piercings and cover her monstrous angel tattoo over her pubic region, but never bothered to cover up the tramp stamp at the base of her spine out of 10

“You mean that ugly mutt? Pursuing such a creature would be nothing more than pure vice.” – The Last Mistress.