See how they lie
by Jason Blair
THE LAST MISTRESS: Written and directed by Catherine Breillat, based on the novel by Jules Amédéé Barbey d’Aurevilly. Cinematography, Giorgos Arvanitis. Starring Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou and Michael Lonsdale. IFC Films, 2008. Unrated. 114 minutes.
|La Vellini (Asia Argento) and Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) in The Last Mistress.|
Despite the finality of its title, The Last Mistress is about an endless love affair and the people betrayed, inspired and ruined by it. Like its subject matter — sex among the Parisian upper-crust — the film itself arrives drenched in gossip, although I found the sex too tame to warrant its “unrated” classification. (Then again, I might have slapped the great WALL-E with an R rating, so austere is some of its material.) Still, The Last Mistress is a passionate and often intelligent film that takes the tragedy of its subjects seriously.
“Tragedy” is a word we apply more liberally than sunscreen these days, but I think we can feel justified using it here: Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou), a hypersexual Don Juan, is confronted by the grandmother of his fiancée, who demands he account for his reputation as a playboy. Ryno proceeds to tell grandma the story of his 10-year adventure with a prostitute, a grim tale of love and loss that Ryno swears is ancient history. In the tale, he comes off as criminally lovestruck by La Villini (Asia Argento), who by legend is the “illegitimate child of an Italian princess and a famed Spanish matador.” Grandma seems satisfied the affair is over. Audiences will know it’s anything but.
Ryno marries his mute fiancée. And so The Last Mistress evolves into a story of love’s appetite for destruction. The film is rife with coincidence and awkward silences, sometimes in the same scene, and a seemingly major character lasts all of 60 seconds yet is mourned for years. For a film about sexual desire, The Last Mistress can feel cloistered and tame. Yet you sense that little of this matters to director Catherine Breillat, who seems more interested in attenuating mood and pace to as languid a point as possible, like a person who won’t refuel a car in the interest of discovering how far it can go before stalling. The effect is strangely compelling. Breillat (Dirty Like an Angel), a pro at creating soft porn for the educated classes, has, by embracing the virtues of a period piece, found a good vehicle for examining her interests, in particular the way sex destroys as it creates.
The Last Mistress opens Friday, Sept. 5, at the Bijou.