The Last Mistress



CANNES -- An opening title in Catherine Breillat's first attempt at a costume drama informs us that we are in "Paris, 1835, at the time of Choderlos de Laclos" -- author of the licentious (for its time) novel "Dangerous Liaisons." Since Breillat has pretty well cornered the French art house market involving in-your-face sex, there's little doubt what "The Last Mistress" (Une Vieille Maitresse) is likely to deliver. And on this score at least, audiences will not be disappointed. The film opens May 30 in France.

There are, of course, lashings of sex -- noisy, voluptuous, athletic and often talkative. This, allied to Breillat's name recognition, should ensure the movie gets decent exposure at home and abroad, if not good boxoffice.

Its merits in purely cinematic terms are more debatable. Much effort and expense has gone into setting up painterly compositions. The screenplay, by contrast, feels underdeveloped.

The mistress in question is Vellini (Asia Argento), the Spanish wife of an aristocrat, and the liaison she dangerously disrupts is that of her former lover, the libertine Ryno de Marigny (Fuad Ait Aattou), who has become engaged to the beautiful, virginal and no less aristocratic Hermangarde (Roxanecq Mesquida).

Marigny, who has spent 10 years in thrall to the sultry Vellini, pays her a visit to inform her of his forthcoming marriage, though he allows himself one last session between the sheets before he does so. He is then summoned before the elderly Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), Hermangarde's grandmother, who is curious to know about his scabrous past and wishes to sound him out as to the purity of his intentions.

The movie then goes into an hourlong flashback as Marigny, with some voice-over, recounts his first encounter with Vellini, the duel with her husband that nearly cost him his life, their flight to North Africa (there's a "touch of the Moor about her," as one character delicately puts it), the birth and early death of their child, their return to Paris and the turning of love to something like hate and self-loathing, though even these are not sufficient to break his subjection to her.

Now, he finally informs the marquise, all that is over, and he pledges himself wholly and unreservedly to Hermangarde's happiness. Except, of course, all that is not over, and four months into the marriage, with the couple living blissfully in a chateau on the Brittany coast, Vellini shows up again and Marigny promptly falls back into his old ways.

Breillat's movie is an adaptation of a mid-19th century novel of the same title in which she has transposed the action from a provincial setting, among the minor aristocracy, to the high society of Paris. If the intention was to accentuate similarities with the Laclos novel and the successful movie that Stephen Frears derived from it, it has to be said that the comparison does Breillat no favors.

Vellini and Marigny, buffeted by forces beyond their control, lack the malignant power of the protagonists of "Dangerous Liaisons" and are not as "pure" as Breillat seems to think they are. Nor are the actors who embody them convincing. The fresh-faced Ait Aattou, a newcomer to the screen, fails to convey anything resembling passion. Argento, as a force of nature and creature of her senses, sulks and pouts and shakes her mane gamely, but it's never made clear why a man would risk losing everything, including a new wife who has just become pregnant, in order to follow her.

Strikingly, all the characters appear to be either younger than 30 or older than 70, with no one in between, and while the youngsters have sex to think about or engage in, their elders have little to do. Possibly the most frustrating aspect of the movie is seeing such fine actors as Michael Lonsdale, as the Vicomte de Prony, and Yolande Moreau, as the Comtesse d'Artelles, reduced to little more than providing exposition, commentary and the occasional morsel of gossip.

Flach Film
Director: Catherine Breillat
Writer: Catherine Breillat, based on the novel by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly
Producer: Eddy Jabes
Director of photography: Yorgos Arvanitis
Editor: Pascale Chavance
Production design: Francois-Renaud Labarthe
Costumes: Anais Romand
Vellini: Asia Argento
Ryno de Marigny: Fuad Ait Aattou
Hermangarde: Roxane Mesquida
Marquise de Flers: Claude Sarraute
Vicomte de Prony: Michael Lonsdale
Comtesse d'Artelles: Yolande Moreau
Running time -- 114 minutes
No MPAA rating