Catherine Breillat hitches her wagon to the hottest of European stars, Asia Argento, in a highly entertaining adaptation of French dandy Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's mid-nineteenth-century novel Une vieille maîtresse — once notorious for its treatment of a young libertine's erotic obsession with a homely 36-year-old woman.
Set on the cusp of modern times, The Last Mistress opens in 1835, five years into Louis-Philippe's bourgeois monarchy and four years before the invention of the daguerreotype. A pair of aged, self-satisfied aristos (Michael Lonsdale and Yolande Moreau) chow down and discuss the impending wedding of impoverished party boy Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou in his first movie) to a well-born, chaste and rich Hermangarde de Polmaron (Roxane Mesquida).
The alliance involves multiple scandals: Ryno is marrying Hermangarde for her money while, innocent of his lengthy involvement with the notorious courtesan La Vellini (Argento), she is marrying him for love. The illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a Spanish matador, Vellini is introduced in perpendicular close-up sprawled on her divan. Argento may fit no one's notion of ugly, but Breillat uses the actress's frank gaze ("a capricious flamenca who could outstare the sun") and virtuoso carnality as a means of disrupting the inherently genteel material.
Argento is only the most obvious of Breillat's strategic anachronisms, which begin with a title locating the action in "the century of Choderlos de Laclos" (who published Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1782), continue through Vellini's casually outrageous period get-ups and the gusto with which she consumes an ice-cream cone, and end with a shot of Argento's heretofore concealed tattoo. So Vellini has a tramp stamp — could it possibly be more outrageous than the bodacious spit curl over her right eye, unmistakably arranged to suggest the curve of her buttocks?
Such profligate touches work because Breillat is otherwise so rigorously frugal in nailing the period. The props are judicious, the compositional ideas drawn from Ingres and Goya. The Last Mistress is mainly interiors and, a half-dozen sexual eruptions notwithstanding, largely talk. Over a third of the movie is devoted to the story that Ryno tells Hermangarde's doting and ultimately dozing grandmother (critic and TV personality Claude Sarraute) about his lengthy affair with La Vellini — a relationship born in blood and loathing. Having initially joked about Vellini's "ugly mutt," Ryno is smitten when he encounters her at a costume party where she's dressed as the devil, the guests pass around a pornographic picture at dinner and the entertainment is a bawdy song from a 1937 German movie musical. Ryno pursues Vellini, inadvertently provoking a duel with her elderly husband. (She appears, dressed as a man, as the old fellow's second.) He gallantly fires in the air and is shot point-blank. The painful close-up of a doctor extracting the bullet from his chest is pure Breillat; the scene in which Vellini bursts into the sickroom to suck his wound is pure Argento — and a gesture far more authentic than her character's abrupt change of heart.
Having made her reputation as a sexual provocatrix with Romance, Breillat here tweaks the bourgeois from another, earlier perspective — namely that of the aristocracy. ("I've remained ferociously eighteenth-century," the tolerant grandmother assures Ryno.) It was when French social distinctions blurred in the 1830s that dandyism emerged as an oppositional mode. If Louis-Philippe and his court endorsed the "vulgar" bourgeois work ethic, the dandy — as embodied by Ryno — embraced a program of ostentatious idleness and gratification.
Breillat also turns a particular sexual equation on its head. In Barbey's autobiographical novel, Ryno describes himself as the odalisque to Vellini's sultan. Whether or not the director suspects Vellini might be a stand-in for a man, she's made her outlaw couple strikingly androgynous — claiming that, like Barbey, she identifies with the dandified Ryno, and engaging throughout in all manner of discreet gender-bending. Vellini puffs on a cigar and blows smoke rings; Ryno bats his eyes and purses his bee-stung lips. Which one is the femme fatale? Desire knows no boundaries: In the end, she pursues him so that he will pursue her.