The Last Mistress

Yorgos Arvaniti and Guillaume Lavit d’Hauterfort/IFC First Take
Catherine Breillat/France-Italy 2007

The Last MistressCatherine Breillat’s adaptation of the Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly novel – might be set during the 19th century, but attitude wise it is totally 21st. The filmmaker’s evocation of a longstanding passionate affair set against the backdrop of upper class Paris is rife with hipster chic touches. It features androgynous protagonists, trendy period attire and expressions of offbeat sexuality that would be right at home in a Greenwich Village nightclub.

Yet, the production still ends up enmeshed in the slow, stodgy morass that so often torpedoes the most well-intentioned costume dramas. This is especially so every moment Asia Argento, who gives a typically daring performance, is not onscreen. As Vellini, older lover of Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou), she projects a level of intensity unmatched by anyone else in the ensemble. Argento inhabits her with a full throttle physicality that burns with fierce desire and steadfast conviction. The actress effortlessly amps up her emotional register, becoming precisely the sort of uncontrollable human force that would impact someone as profoundly as Vellini has Ryno.

The rest of the picture consists of some less than enthralling conversation and lots of brooding by Ryno and Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), his virginal fiance. This takes place amidst the creaky wooden floors, posh parlors and other standard signifiers of aristocratic life during the Bourbon Restoration. The scenes are put together and performed competently but they are undercut by the absence of the movie’s only interesting personality.

Too often the dull specter of the impending marriage takes center stage. At the same time, Aattou (unfortunately playing the movie’s actual main character) preens like a typical costume drama poster boy and Breillat never seems quite able to transfer her hip touch to the dialogue, which is filled with flowery clunkers likely taken directly from the novel. It is miraculous that Argento stands so firmly apart from the chilliness that pervades around her. Breillat seems a different, more inspired filmmaker with her star onscreen and one can’t help but wish that the entire lugubrious charade had been transformed into a one-woman show.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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