Director: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Asia Argento
The Last Mistress is a surprisingly subdued film from writer/director Catherine Breillat. I mean, sure, at one point a woman licks the blood from the wound of her would-be-lover as a form of foreplay, but for Breillat, who has made a career out of redefining the limits of the term “controversial,” that’s actually pretty tame.
The mistress of the title is a Spanish courtesan named Vellini (Asia Argento) who has been involved with Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) for ten years. As is so often the case in stories like this, Ryno is noble by birth and impoverished by circumstance and must, therefore, make a marriage to a woman of both rank and wealth. What is perhaps unusual about the story is that he also happens to be deeply in love with his fiancée, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), and sees the necessity of breaking with Vellini as a blessing rather than a sacrifice.
Ryno’s relationship with Vellini is one defined more by hate than love, by control rather than affection. When she hears of Ryno’s impending marriage, Vellini smiles self-assuredly. She knows that her hold over him can never really be broken and that eventually he will come back to her – all she has to do is wait. Ryno marries Hermangarde and then, to protect himself from the pull of Vellini, moves with her to the seaside where they can live in peace and isolation. Vellini follows and soon Ryno is back under her spell, which destroys everything around him.
Breillat’s films are always informed by an intense and aggressive feminism, exploring the relationship between the sexes and the boundaries of gender. The visual aspect of her films is very important in this respect as her theories are expressed implicitly through the look of the film more than they are explicitly stated by the screenplay. Start with the casting: Argento – an actress whose pairing with Breillat is so inspired that you have to wonder why it never happened before – whose dark, “exotic” looks contrast with the blonde, angelic looks of Mesquida; and Aattou, whose facial features are distinctly androgynous, bordering on feminine. Ryno is drawn to Vellini but he also hates and fears her. What he really hates/fears is not her, however, but the inversion of gender norms inherent in their relationship. Vellini is the active partner who pursues him from Paris to the seaside, who practically devours him after he’s injured in a duel, who dominates him sexually, and often crossdresses. Ryno hates her because he’s submissive to her, feminized by her, and is scared that he likes it.
The centrepiece scene of the film is the wedding of Ryno and Hermangarde. In this scene a long Biblical passage is read which reinforces gender roles and expectations, stating that man is the “head” and made in God’s image, woman is made for the benefit of man, etc. It’s an interesting scene in that it not only clearly expresses the rigid tradition that informs the characters' relationships and means of self-definition, but also serves to define Hermangarde’s place in the story. Hermangarde is the woman Ryno loves but she’s also an afterthought, a character who gets perhaps a dozen lines. Her role is simply to be defined against Vellini, to represent the safety of tradition against the seductive danger of possibility represented by Vellini.
Breillat is a filmmaker with whom I don’t always agree but who always leaves me with something to think about. The Last Mistress is no exception and is perhaps all the more successful for the ways in which Breillat restrains herself. The screenplay is well-written, although the story is somewhat slow in the middle, and it's refreshing to see a costume drama that's about more than just pretty clothes and pretty settings. The result is a thoughtful and engaging film that makes its point without hammering it into your head.