Thursday, May 17, 2018
Catherine Breillat | Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress)
lustful listening and the venomous tongue
by Douglas Messerli
Catherine Breillat (screenplay, based on the novel Une vieille maîtresse by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly and director) Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress) / 2007
To describe Catherine Breillat as one of the greatest women directors in the world, while appropriate, would also be to qualify her; it might be better to simply describe her as one of the best international directors of her generation.
Beillat’s work generally involves romantic tales, some based on fairy and folktales, that involve strong women who outwit the men with whom they are involved, creating a kind of feminist twist, yet calling up the whole genre of romance fiction, with handsome heroes and strong-willed women. The Last Mistress fits many of these patterns, with a more than handsome male lead playing the
libertine aristocrat Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) and his beautiful, impetuous and demanding mistress and later wife, Vellini (Asia Argento).
Using richly hued colors with detailed, luxurious sets, and filming her figures often in deep close-ups, Breillat uses all the tricks of romance novels, taking the viewer into steamy sexual relationships without blinking. Yet there is also a sophistication about Breillat’s works that utterly separate them from their cruder forms.
Particularly, in this film, the feminist-like hero, Vellini, of royal Spanish blood (her royal mother having had an affair with a matador) speaks her views numerous times, including at a costume party hosted by Ryno’s friend in order to introduce him to the rare treasure he has discovered in Vellini. The two do not hit it off well, and at that party, where she dresses as the devil—“not a she-devil” she corrects one of her female cohorts; I do not play the feminine, I like that in my men. She apparently also has a lesbian affair with her maid.
But the real wit of this film appears even earlier in the form of the grandmother of the young naïve beauty, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), who Ryno is now prepared to marry, having divorced La Vellini years earlier. The young girl’s elder relative, who identifies more with the 18th century than the century in which she now lives, is what one might almost describe as a prurient voyeur, forcing the young Ryno to tell her the lurid details of his previous love affair with Vellini while she, dressed in full gown, slowly downs several glasses of port and lounging in pleasure while he details his previous sexual intrigues.
For most of the film, La marquise de Flers (the brilliant Claude Sarraute) luxuriates in the sexual titillations of the thick-lipped Ryno as he recounts their hatreds and passions, and a love that has become almost become a mad compulsion. I think that the best way to describe this film is imagine a Technicolor version of Hitchcock’s Rebecca with characters from the opera Carmen tossed in, spiced up with a bit with scenes out of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Dangerous Liaisons.
Breillat, so it is reported, discovered her Algerian-born hero, a model then working in Paris, in a local café (the sort of casting that big male white studio executives did in the days of Lana Turner), and she portrays her figures, that goes far beyond the Hollywood Studio films, as objects of titillation. Both men and women, gay and lesbian can equally enjoy this film. In a sense, Breillat uses a kind of light porno to take home her message that women have the power to turn their admirers into pawns, mere playthings that destroy the male’s sense of privilege and sexual superiority. La Vellini totally enjoys her sexual encounters, while, ultimately, destroying Ryno’s marriage to the far more chaste Hermangarde. All men, Vellini insists, as she locks away Ryno early in their relationship, are “prisoners,” “later you will be my slave.” I can just imagine the excitement of many males, particularly those like Trump.
Even when Ryno is determined to escape her, moving off to an oceanside coast, far away from his beloved Paris, the cigar-smoking siren moves in on her prey.
To Paris high-society, such as the snippy La comtesse d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau) and Le vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale)—who himself has clearly experienced pleasure in her arms—Vellini may simply be a “slut,” the real woman, far outside their gossipy corridors, could care less. She is the victor over their obsequious whisperings by her acting out what they merely insinuate.
By film’s end it is clear the “treasure” of La marquise de Flers’ world, Hermangarde, has lost her beautiful husband, yet she is still pregnant with his son or daughter and will surely rise anew, this time more wisely, to create a new generation out of the old. Besides, she is presented as such a cypher that we hardly care.
One might almost describe Breillat’s engaging film as a kind of purposely voyeuristic work, the way one might characterize Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. In the end, we must ask ourselves are we more interested in the prurient content like La Comtesse and Le vicomte or as the obviously lustful listener La marquise de Flers? In the end, the director suggests, it doesn’t really matter. Passion is passion; we are not the lovers possessed. Observers, as Vellini makes clear, have no role in the matter. The scorpion may bite the innocent—as it has her daughter, killing the child—but the stronger adult can simply remove itself from the venomous tongue.
Los Angeles, May 17, 2018