Review by Robert Bell (B)
Staying true to her singular feminist roots and psychosexual explorations of the inherent imbalances between men and women, but stepping away from prosthetic penises, fun with menstrual blood and brutal parallels of symbolic emotional rape, Catherine Breillat has assembled her most accessible art house film to date. It's a slightly perverse, subtext-laden and stuffy Masterpiece theatre style entry with soft-core porn lighting and surprisingly glib insights on female sexuality in relation to religious constructs of male supremacy. Breillat's feat here is mainly that of transferring Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's invariably male-centric novel of the same name and spicing it up with some sly feminist critique.
The Last Mistress tells the story of 30-year-old libertine Ryno De Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) in 1830's France where he is set to marry a bleached-blonde and pubis-shaven chaste aristocrat named Hermangarde (Breillat regular Roxane Mesquida). Being known for his 10-year affair with an Andalusian courtesan called Vellini (Asia Argento), Ryno is eyed warily by those surrounding Hermangarde, which leads him to professing his story to her grandmother, la Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute).
The majority of the film is told through this flashback, as Ryno's initial dislike for the homely (according to the text) Vellini, turns to arousal, pursuance and conquest.
As the pair go from unknowns, to lovers, to parents and back around they continue with cat-and-mouse games that lead into the present when Vellini learns of Ryno's marriage to the virtuous Hermangarde. In true form, Vellini shows up from afar to tempt her long-time lover with her ardent sexuality and knowing gaze.
Breillat's preoccupation with the profane is still apparent in Mistress, with chicken slaughter, wound licking, kooky sexual positions and some erotic asphyxia next to the burning corpse of a 3-year-old, but is considerably more palatable in relation to the narrative than much of her previous work. Perversion is often used to symbolize demonized female sexuality as well as the virulent nature of cannibalistic French socialites throughout the film and is recognizable as such.
A great deal of the films strength lies in the connection and intensity of the performances from both Aattou and Argento. While Aattou radiates a naïve charm and relatively lucid idealism, Argento purrs with intimidating sexuality, which stems from her husky voice and penetrating gaze. They are able to play off of each other's strengths with ease as Vellini clearly dominates the milquetoast Ryno both intellectually and sexually. Their passion is convincing, leading to a greater believability in Ryno's struggle to remain faithful to his comely bride whom he quickly loses interest in.
The implication that men are simplistic creatures driven by sexual impulse and entitlement, while women must use hard-earned wit and manipulation to obtain power, is nothing particularly new or insightful. It is, however, an interesting take on some fairly familiar and somewhat bland material.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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