Une Vieille maîtresse
France/Italy , 2007
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 12 October 2007
Source Studio Canal/IFC Films 35mm print
Categories The 45th New York Film Festival
Catherine Breillat stresses the gluttonous tastes of aristocratic French society in The Last Mistress. Although the film takes place after the death of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the French novelist who captured a generation’s corruption with his novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses, the Parisian society in The Last Mistress claims, for the most part, to be above that former, notorious debauchery. Yet the figure of the libertine still exists, here embodied in Ryno de Marigny, a rake attempting to forgo his bad habits with marriage to the fragile, timid Hermangarde, a pretty young thing who has inspired his sudden bout of morality. Regrettably, temptation still exists for Ryno in the figure of his former lover, Vellini, and Breillat’s latest film pins down a peculiar state of lust between these two people, one that extends beyond strong, if fleeting, sexual desire into a malformed but undeniable psychological craving.
The film opens with attempts by certain members of the aristocracy to save Hermangarde: an older couple not only divulge the engagement news to Vellini, in the hopes of riling her jealousy, but also plead with Hermangarde’s grandmother, emphasizing Ryno’s former ties to scandale. Her grandmother, La Marquise de Flers, does not budge, but instead arranges a trip to the opera to see Vellini in person, to know her granddaughter’s enemy (the scene is reminiscent of Scorsese’s own staging of societal peeping in The Age of Innocence, as information is passed through mere nods of the head and opera glasses aren’t exactly focused on the stage). After eyeballing Vellini, La Marquise casually confronts Ryno, reminding him of her own experience with libertines, and requests from him a reminiscence of his affair with Vellini. Nearly a third of the film is occupied with this extended flashback, as Ryno recounts the circumstances of the relationship to his future grandmother in law, who leans back in her chaise lounge to savor every last detail.
The tempestuous love affair is a far cry from the casual brushing of hands and silent trembling that typifies a number of costume dramas, although there is a typical period of agonized longing after Ryno first locks eyes with Vellini. Though initially dismissive of the woman, an export from Spain with an illustrious history as the product of an affair between a bullfighter and an Italian princess, Ryno suddenly changes his mind when they next meet at a friend’s dinner party and wages that he can bed her. To his surprise, and eventual dismay, Vellini disregards him with near hatred, after he offends her with a teasing remark. Inexplicably, this sets Ryno off in dogged pursuit. She rebukes him, cuts his face with a horsewhip, and informs her much older, English husband of Ryno’s misbehavior. He continues his pursuit, as only nineteenth century men can, willingly losing a pistol duel with Vellini’s husband out of the sheer hope it will end his infatuation through death.
However, Ryno survives the bullet wound and awakens to find his passion matched: Vellini doesn’t merely kiss Ryno, she literally sucks the blood out of his bullet wound in a frenzied state. Actress Asia Argento perfectly inhabits this perverse lust; her Vellini is a bewitching creature, brusque, wickedly clever, and disarmingly seductive. The masterful control Vellini retains on Ryno is deliberately complimented by the casting of Fu’ad Ait Aattou as Ryno; with his slender frame, full lips and wide, blue eyes, Ryno’s appealing but unintimidating male physique is in perfect contrast to Argento’s arresting glances and voluptuous, gorgeous curves. While there’s little that is delicate or traditionally feminine about her, Vellini emits a magnetic sexual charge that Ryno becomes besotted with. In the various sexual positions the two entangle themselves in, Vellini is the more uninhibited and certainly dominating partner, while Ryno willingly accepts her whims, a power play that spills over into their treatment of one another outside the bedroom.
This sadomasochistic bent is ultimately their mutual undoing — despite going through with his marriage, Vellini remains a fervent thought for Ryno, a weakness she plays upon even months after the nuptials. In one of their last trysts before the wedding, Vellini asks Ryno to describe his beloved Hermangarde, to explain his sudden desire for someone noble, yet inexperienced, and nearly frigid. His response rings with the desperation of a possessed man finally finding someone weaker whom he might finally control. Breillat pulls away the magnifying glass from this couple in the final moments, reminding us that this insistent greed, not merely for power, but for money, rank, and any number of superficial delights, is an affliction of nearly every party concerned in this drama, not merely Ryno. Breillat neither condemns nor celebrates their immoral outcome, but instead observes that despite their private idiosyncrasies, Ryno and his mistress are hardly unusual. They are merely another pair of self-absorbed lovers in a society that for all its protestation seems unable to function without such narcissism.
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