The Last Mistress
Despite suffering a cerebral haemorrhage in 2004, the French filmmaker Catherine Breillat has returned with her most entertaining and accessible work to date. Based on the 19th century novel by the controversial writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, the sumptuously shot The Last Mistress begins in 1835 Paris, where the dashing and dissolute Ryno de Marigny (impressive newcomer Fu’ad Ait Aattou) is engaged to be married to the virginal heiress Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). The groom however is still embroiled in a tempestuous 10-year liaison with a scandalous Spanish courtesan Vellini (Asia Argento), the illegitimate daughter of a bullfighter and an Italian princess. Will Ryno really be able to free himself of what one of his friends calls this ‘haughty and heartless creature?’
Breillat here overthrows the weary proprieties of traditional costume dramas, focussing on the sexually charged relationship between Ryno and Vellini. Flamboyantly played by Argento, this femme fatale is dressed in an array of exotic outfits and hairstyles, and at times she favours a boldly androgynous look: ‘I hate anything feminine,’ her character declares, ‘except in young men.’
There’s a sadistic streak to her desires: she licks the blood of her partner’s duelling wound, and cuts his face with a knife. No wonder that the pale, polite Hermengarde seems slightly dull in comparison. And this being a Breillat film, don’t be surprised that it’s only the orgasmic cries of Vellini that we hear during the film’s explicit sex scenes, the most haunting of which takes place in front of her child’s funeral pyre in Algeria.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 9–Thu 15 May.