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    The Last Mistress

    Passion show

    Catherine Breillat's steamy "The Last Mistress" brings life to a classic French novel about love irresistible.


    Maybe edgy siren Asia Argento developed a taste for portraying brazen, lusty women in costume dramas when she appeared as Madame DuBarry in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette," for here she stars in "The Last Mistress," (based on Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's novel "Une Vielle Ma”tresse"), an intense, involving film set in 19th-century Paris. And she's no schoolmarm.

    Original title: Une Vieille Ma”tresse.
    Written and directed by: Catherine Breillat.
    Adapted from novel by: Jules-AmŽdŽe Barbey d'Aurevilly.
    Cast: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, Anne Parillaud, Jean-Philippe Tesse, Sarah Pratt, Amira Casar, Lio, Isabelle Renauld, LŽa Seydoux, Nicholas Hawtrey, Caroline Ducey.
    Cinematography: Giorgos Arvanitis.
    Edited by: Pascale Chavance.
    In French with English subtitles.
    Directed by Catherine Breillat ("Fat Girl," "Une Vraie Jeune Fille," "Sex Is Comedy"), "The Last Mistress" finds Argento playing La Vellini, a fiery Spanish "courtesan on the wane" who has a longstanding affair with younger aristocrat Ryno de Marigny (Fu-ad Ait Aattou). At the beginning of the film, de Marigny visits La Vellini and informs her that it will be the last time he will see her as he is set to marry the prim, well-bred, picture-perfect Hermangarde. De Marigny professes his love for Hermangarde at every chance but it is hard to believe.

    The Last Mistress  
    A few nights before their wedding, Hermangarde's grandmother sympathetically tells de Marigny that she knows of his involvement with La Vellini, and the bulk of the film is a flashback to the days of their affair. This storytelling device is an economical use of filmic time as it summarizes their years together with enough detail and a quick enough pace to prevent the film from dragging.

    It was anything but love at first sight when de Marigny and La Vellini first come across each other: seeing her at a cafŽ and thinking she is out of earshot, deMarigny refers to her as an "ugly mutt," and she hears him. He's bewitched nonetheless and tries to woo her at a costume party even as she acts lovey-dovey with her well-off but dull English husband. An encounter on horseback at the Bois de Boulogne leads to a duel between de Marigny and La Vellini's husband. De Marigny is seriously wounded and she warms up to him so much that she hungrily licks the blood from his bullet wound until a surgeon pulls her away.

    La Vellini begins sleeping with de Marigny on a regular basis, departing before dawn each day to go back home. She ultimately leaves her husband to be with de Marigny, leaving the Englishman in a weeping heap on the bedroom floor. DeMarigny and La Vellini live in Algieria for five years and have a daughter, who falls victim to a scorpion sting. La Vellini's grief is all-consuming, comparable to her passion: she sobs and wails deafeningly, holding on to the dead child for five days.

    "The Last Mistress" draws the viewer in and doesn't let go; you're always wondering when de Marigny and La Vellini will be together again. De Marigny always returns to La Vellini, something you want to happen no matter how much he talks about how happy he is with Hermangarde; she is no match for La Vellini's carnality. The love triangle has a weak side: the chemistry between de Marigny and La Vellini is palpable, undeniable, and Hermangarde is a cipher. She doesn't show any desire for de Marigny. (When Marigny wants to kiss Hermangarde he has to politely ask her.) Sex is a big part of the film: there's substantial nudity and explicit sex scenes between Argento and Aattou, which function as a vital part of the plot instead of being gratuitous. Oddly enough, there's also a lot of blood in the film; La Vellini cuts her hand on a broken wineglass at the costume party, she capriciously takes a knife out of her hair and cuts Marigny's cheek, and there's the aftermath of Hermangarde's miscarriage. This seems to symbolize the depth of the passion between the two characters; they have literally gotten under each other's skin.

      The Last Mistress
    Clad in black lace with colorful flowers in her hair and always wearing just one flashy earring, Argento is dazzling and the camera can't seem to get enough of her, whether she's eloquently bored at an opera (where she and her entourage leave after a few minutes) or flagrantly smoking a cigar at a costume party where she's dressed as the devil. (Not a she-devil, she's quick to correct a fellow guest; "I hate anything feminine, except men," she quips, referring slyly to the pretty de Marigny seated at her left.) Attou has a seductive callowness, with sensuous eyes and lips out of a Rodin sculpture. He is perfectly cast to play the object of desire of an older woman.

    Director Catherine Breillat has woven a gripping tale of undeniable desire. La Vellini and de Marigny's affair could go on for decades and you would want to see every moment.

    JUNE 27, 2008

    Reader comments on The Last Mistress:

  • Une Vieille Maitresse   from Alba, Jun 18, 2010

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