Monday, July 13, 2009

The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse) A Film by Catherine Breillat (2007)

Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress kicks off like a demure French period piece that will seem closer to reading Jane Austen than it will like witnessing Breillat's explicit sensibilities. In 19th century France, we see the prestigious elderly discuss thoroughly the romantic exploits of a young, penniless aristocrat named Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou), whose impending marriage to a wealthy blonde, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), is somewhat marred by his ten-year connection to his Spanish mistress, Vellini (Asia Argento). Their conversations move in a heavily mannered fashion, steeping us in what is perceived as the ethical wisdom of the time, and Breillat's camera is chiefly a respectful, non-confrontational observer, serving the dialogue more than satisfying the opulent surroundings. Gradually however, once Breillat has established her milieu dutifully, giving it a classic, sedate period treatment, abstractions begin to seep into the material. Once we're ready to confirm that Breillat has put the provocative eroticism of her previous features behind her, something magical happens, and dark, conflicting undertones start jabbing their way tangentially into the material. It's like the otherworldly eroticism of David Lynch broke through its cage and snuck into a Merchant-Ivory production. And although these spurts arrive abruptly (see Breillat's jarring cuts to Marigny and Vellini making love on the floor or Vellini's vampiric lunge at Marigny's bullet wound), they never feel staunchly out of place.

This phenomenon can perhaps be credited to Breillat's storytelling mechanics. Following the aforementioned setup, Hermangarde's grandmother (Yolande Moreau) confronts Ryno to gain insight on his relationship with Vellini, fearful that her granddaughter may be entering a faithless marriage. Ryno, convinced of his love for the petite Hermangarde, obliges, subjecting her to a long-winded account of his history with Vellini. Ryno's words are interspersed with flashbacks to this history, such detailed ones in fact that it comes as a surprise when Breillat positions the scene right back in the living room where Ryno and the intelligent grandmother discuss. Nonetheless, Breillat's temporal shifts are effortless; Ryno's entire story is told, from its fiery origins to its wanton disconnection, and the grandmother's dignified attention and perky ear for suspicion is never absent. She gives Ryno consent to marry Hermangarde, ushering in the third section of the film: the two elope, head to a peaceful seaside retreat (with shades of a medieval village), but Vellini remains attached, geographically and physically.

Marigny, with his plush skin and sizable red lips, and Vellini, with her distinguishable armpit hair and dangerous aggression, are both faintly androgynous figures, and it is their destructive physical relationship which is Breillat's main focus rather than that of Ryno and Hermangarde, which would have been the more conventional subject. (In fact, Hermangarde is rarely seen in the film, other than as a silent, enigmatic sweetheart.) In doing so, Breillat is taking the opportunity to challenge the sexual expectations under the established society as well as reverse the familiar storytelling angle. With Vellini's magnetic presence nearly hogging the screen, it is largely through her physicality and Ryno's reaction to it that we observe the French society. Argento is fearless with the performance, recalling the exoticism of Barbara Steele in Mario Bava's Black Sunday. She vacillates between feral and inaccessible and sensuous and desperate, always however, remaining an outsider. Vellini does not subscribe to the restrictions of proper romantic love, at once scoffing at Ryno's description of Hermangarde as a prude. Ultimately, it is this female bravado that keeps Ryno coming back even through his marriage to Hermangarde, and that Breillat so passionately embraces.

It is tempting though to denigrate The Last Mistress according to its feminist stance. Breillat is clearly making a comment on the dynamism of woman, their ability to stranglehold a male partner so shamelessly, and also of the necessity for female freedom. Certainly, Breillat's task becomes much easier when she adds enough makeup around Ryno's dreamy eyes. Ryno and Hermangarde's marriage scene is telling along this line; two scriptures are read from the Bible, one expounding on the spiritual connection of a male and female in marriage, the other, spoken by the Priest, reassuring Man's place as the creator of life, and therefore of his dominance over the female. Argento's character skillfully breaks this credo, luring Ryno into her new getaway by the sea in a seeming attempt at indefinite closure for him which inevitably results in more sex (often times more like manifestations of convoluted modern art sculptures). Reading the film this way is certainly important, but mustn't be the only line of thought, for it gets in the way of some of the broader points Breillat makes about fidelity, dignity, order, and the individuality that lurks beneath oppression.

When all is said and done, there's more to praise here than to decry. That Breillat does not relish the makeup, hair, costumes, and sets in a historical drama, and does not reveal obvious beauty, is admirable. The camerawork is never ostentatious, but rather shines when necessary, such as when dotting Ryno and his horse against the distant sea line and the archaic houses. Some scenes even brush up against the avant-garde, which she handles tactfully. In particular, Ryno recounts to Hermangarde's grandmother one stretch of time that he and Vellini spent in the Algerian desert, where the two gave birth to a baby that was soon after bit by a scorpion. Beside a fire that extinguishes the baby, the two make love on the sand, Argento's reeling, naked body eventually framed against the crystalline blue sky. This scene has more in common with Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo than it does with the talky drama that the film opens with. The Last Mistress shines with these types of conflicting qualities.

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