Laura CliffordRyno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) is well born but has spent his family fortune on his willful Spanish mistress of 10 years, Vellini (Asia Argento). He has tired of his long time lover and has found love anew with the beautiful young noblewoman, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). They marry but, four months later, Vellini arrives on the scene and works her wiles once again as “The Last Mistress.”
Actress turned director Catherine Breillat comes up with a sultry, saucy period drama set in aristocratic 1835 France. This is an offbeat adaptation (by Breillat) of the controversial 19th century novel by Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly that benefit from its new millennium character, Vellini, played with gusto by Argento. Vellini is of a time and place different from the rest of the characters in the period drama and the actress puts a unique spin on her conniving, calculating mistress.
Newcomer Fu’ad Ait Aattou, as love struck Ryno, has lips even poutier than Argento’s and, I admit, found it annoying and distracting at first. But, as the story unfolds especially as he tells Hermangarde’s guardian grandmother (non-actress Claude Sarraute) the details of his torrid, decade-long affair with Vellini Ryno takes on a sympathetic air. He is prettier than his co-star and Aattou develops a palpable presence on-screen. The rest of the fine cast do the story and its characters justice.
Breillat does an exemplary job recreating the world of 1835 aristocratic France with its opulent costumes, grand balls and operas and feeling of unbridled wealth (for the few on top). Costume is dead on with Argento decked out in a variety of outfits from flamenco dancer to Moorish dandy. Argento seems to relish wearing her over the top clothes. Techs are first rate across the board, from cinematography to set design. I give it a B+.
Writer/director Catherine Breillat ("A Real Young Girl," "Fat Girl," "Sex is Comedy") has been provoking audiences with her unapologetically blatant films on female sexuality for thirty years. With her first period adaptation and a star as controversially 'bad girl' as herself (as well as a director in her own right), Breillat delivers a film that seethes sexuality in all its various stages.
Asia Argento ("xXx," "Marie Antoinette," "The Third Mother: Mother of Tears") eats the screen alive as Vellini, the alleged illegitimate daughter of a Spanish bullfighter and Italian princess who is presented to professional womanizer Ryno de Marigny (newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou) by his friend as a prized novelty. He incurs her hatred by referring to her as an 'ugly mutt' within her earshot and does not find her favor until he purposely allows himself to be shot in a duel for her honor with her husband. We know she's changed her mind when she enters his sickroom to suck the blood from his wound.
The story of the ensuing ten year romance of Vellini and Marigny is told as a flashback by Marigny to the grandmother of his betrothed on the eve of his wedding. La marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute) has been advised by her gossiping friends Le vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale, "Ronin," "5x2") and La comtesse d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau, "Amélie," "Paris, je t'aime") against allowing the penniless libertine to marry the beautiful heiress Hermangarde (a blonde Roxane Mesquida, "Fat Girl," "Sex is Comedy"), but the Marquise prides herself an 18th century Laclos lover, an open-minded woman in the more buttoned down 19th century, and so she encourages Marigny to tell her his whole story, which he does until dawn.
Breillat has structured her film beautifully, a series of flashbacks within a film which is bookended neatly by the Greek chorus of Prony, a Vellini visitor himself, and d'Artelles, a couple of tut-tutting hypocrites of the current (19th) century. Fu'ad Ait Aattou is a sensuous looking young man with a fair, feminine face and lush lips who falls under the spell of the sexually rapacious, almost masculine Vellini. What begins in blood sucking becomes heated romance and scandal. The couple run to Algeria, but the death of their daughter turns Vellini into a primal banshee who rapes her lover to bleed her grief. Marigny turns the affair into friendship back in France, but cannot truly stay away until he falls for the virginal Hermangarde. After telling his story, the young groom takes himself away from temptation by moving his bride and grandmother to a coastal castle, but Vellini follows and what happens, though inevitable, is given the tragic closure of an adult fairy tale.
Argento takes Vellini over the top just where the character should be - she sizzles, flirts, flashes her eyes, impatiently flutters a fan, cannot stop her hands from roaming. She howls like an animal and ruts like one too. It's an oversized performance, just on the verge of lunacy. Breillat's costume designer, Anaïs Romand ("Demonlover") is given as free reign as her star, conjuring up looks for Argento that take her from Spanish mantilla to Algerian curled toe slippers to Northern fishmonger.
"The Last Mistress" is Breillat's most accessible film, but she does not compromise. In using Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's period novel she gets some remove from which to explore her thoroughly modern themes.
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