For her first film since suffering a massive stroke in 2004, French art-porn provocateur Catherine Breillat eschews the critic- and audience-dividing hard-core antics of her earlier works without abandoning their fierce interrogation of sexual warfare. Depending on one’s inclinations, the result is either a talky, boner-free costume soaper or her most accessible and emotionally nuanced movie yet.
Based on an 1851 novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, The Last Mistress details the obsessive affair between high-society hanger-on Ryno de Marigny (the girlishly delicate Aattou) and Vellini (Argento), a brash Spanish sexpot who refuses to go away quietly when her lover lands an aristocratic fiancée (Mesquida, the pallid yin to Argento’s yang). The film takes a long detour when Ryno tells his future wife’s protective grandmother (Sarraute) of his history with Vellini, a flashback that features the film’s kinkiest and most heart-wrenching scenes. Back in the present, Ryno’s fleetingly happy marriage crumbles under the crushing, repetitive inevitability of
his and Vellini’s compulsive desire—or at least their dedication to the notion thereof.
The latter distinction is what gives The Last Mistress its punch, along with Breillat’s customarily relentless probing of the permeable, indistinct border between private passion and public display (the narrative here is goosed by a pair of gossips wonderfully played by Yolande Moreau and Michael Lonsdale). If the film also periodically rambles and relies too heavily on Argento—a limited actor whose awkward beauty suits the role (though she’s hardly an “ugly mutt,” as one rake describes Vellini)—it captures the absurd dimensions of romance with immediacy and unexpected compassion.
Cast and crew
Fu'ad Ait Aattou