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  • 15
  • Drama, Romance
  • 2007
  • 114 mins

The Last Mistress

The Last Mistress


For her twelfth feature, French feminist Catherine Breillat turns the clock back to nineteenth century Paris for a scandalous story of forbidden love


Filmmaker, novelist, intellectual and feminist, Catherine Breillat is perhaps best known to British audiences for Romance (1999) and Anatomy Of Hell (2003), two causes de scandale in which she anatomised with alarming explicitness the state of modern Western sexuality.

Yet in 2007, the same year that her compatriot Jacques Rivette climbed down from the Nouvelle Vague to make Don't Touch The Axe, a romance set in the Napoleonic era, Breillat too appears to have abandoned the chilly formalism of her earlier work, preferring to dress The Last Mistress, in the elaborate costumes and prescribed manners of a historic drama.

Freely adapted from Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly's nineteenth-century novel of the same name, The Last Mistress is arguably Breillat's most mainstream offering to date - although if you look hard enough, you will easily recognise the director's usual preoccupations. For the film portrays a stifling, hypocritical world whose very mainstay is the patriarchal institution of marriage, and two characters who together rebel against that model for an altogether more liberated form of heterosexual relationship.

A caption reveals that we are in "Paris, February 1835, in the century of Choderlos De Laclos" - and sure enough, there are dangerous liaisons afoot. Thirty-year-old Ryno De Marigny (Aattou) is due to marry Hermangarde (Mesquida), a virginal jewel of the Parisian aristocracy - but not before Hermangarde's wise old grandmother the Marquise De Flers (Sarraute) has sought assurances from the groom that he has brought to an end his scandalous 10-year relationship with La Vellini (Argento), a Spanish woman of easy virtue.

Disarmingly sincere, Marigny spends a long night telling De Flers the whole tempestuous tale, and leaves her in the morning convinced that the affair is over for good. Despite, however, being six years his senior, a foreigner, ill-suited to his social station, and an object as much of his hate as of his love, La Vellini has a hold over Marigny that he will struggle in vain to resist.

First seen posing languidly on a divan like Goya's 'La Maja Vestida', Argento's La Vellini is the embodiment of transgression, desire and caprice - forces that the aristocracy's supposedly polite society is unable to repress. 'Respectable' men like the Vicomte De Prony (Lonsdale) may mock her meretriciousness in public, but they also line up to visit her in private.

Only Marigny makes no secret of his relationship with her ("I hate disguises", he says at a fancy dress party where she is dressed as a devil), and his androgynous dandyism finds its match in her masculine trousers and cigar-smoking. Their sex is unconstrained and passionate, and La Vellini achieves orgasm as much as, if not more than, her male lover. In short, even as this odd couple cuts its destructive path through the social order in a story that is essentially a tragedy, they come across as idealised revolutionaries rather than deluded victims of love.

Aattou, in his on-screen debut (what a discovery!), combines his extraordinary looks with a beguiling earnestness, while Argento exudes a heady mix of eroticism and power. They make a very credible pair, in a film that demands their regular proximity - but they are also well supported by the rest of the cast, including the delightful Sarraute, better known as a columnist than an actress. The sets and costumes, though inevitably staid, are nonetheless impressive, and special mention should be made of La Vellini's carefully arranged locks, teased into two twists over her forehead so that they resemble unmistakably a pair of rounded buttocks.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Yolande Moreau, Caroline Ducey, Amira Casar, Claude Sarraute, Roxane Mesquida, Michael Lonsdale, Anne Parillaud, Fu'ad Ait Aattou, Asia Argento
  • Director: Catherine Breillat
  • Writer (Story): Jules-Amédée Barbey D'Aurevilly
  • Producer: Jean-François Lepetit
  • Photographer: Yorgos Arvanitis

In a nutshell

Catherine Breillat finds her most accessible form in this period drama of irresistible passion.

by Anton Bitel

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