Catherine Breillat has spent more than 30 years showing a knack for directing individuals wearing no costumes at all, so it’s doubly heartening she knows precisely what to do with lovesick characters in lavish costumes in “The Last Mistress.” Splendidly cast tale of a handsome young man who intends to stay away from his desire-stoking, long-term mistress after his marriage, brims with pointed dialogue, with the occasional duel or forthright sex scene interspersed to fine effect. Tapping into a universal strain of yearning, Cannes competition entry gives arthouse a good name.
The mix of declamatory delivery and outsized emotions evident in much of Breillat’s work has sometimes been too stilted — or just plain silly — to truly fly. But here the courtliness and formal cruelty of 19th-century French manners work in her favor. Adapting a book by semi-notorious novelist and critic Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808-89), Breillat freely stamps her strong and singular feminine insights on a man’s material.
Opening caption notes we’re in Paris, February 1835, adding that this is the century of (“Dangerous Liaisons” author) Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Elderly but still dapper Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and middle-aged Countess d’Artelles (Yolande Moreau) are savoring a meal together. Besides exquisite food, their greatest pleasure would seem to be observing and commenting on human nature, as expressed by the romances and peccadilloes of fellow aristocrats.
De Prony pays a visit on Vellini (Asia Argento), a flamboyant Spanish woman in her mid-30s. He’s there to warn her that her lover of 10 years, Ryno de Marigny, is betrothed to the young, extremely well-born Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). Vellini parries that a little thing like marriage is unlikely to interfere with their indelible bond, for no third party can ever fathom what she and De Marigny share.
As De Prony departs, De Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aatou) arrives. His beauty is tailor-made for an angular Tamara de Lempicka portrait: unlined face, arresting eyes, impossibly full lips and, as we’ll soon see, a lean, hairless, perfectly proportioned frame. He has come for one last pleasure cruise of Vellini’s body: their carnal connection leaps off the screen.
Hermangarde’s grandmother, Marquise de Flers (delectable Claude Sarraute), has a frank talk with the groom-to-be a few days before the wedding. She says all Paris knows he’s been a notorious libertine, with a particularly torrid attachment to Vellini, so why should she trust him to make her granddaughter happy?
An extended flashback takes over as De Marigny recounts his tumultuous decade in and out of Vellini’s arms. He seems sincerely determined to make a fresh start. Grandma gives the union her blessing.
But the tempestuous Vellini is said to be the illegitimate daughter of a noblewoman and a toreador, and De Marigny is like a perpetual red cape to her. Will he be able to stay out of the ring?
Pic’s subtext and timeless relevance are satisfyingly rich, with women endeavoring to exercise their hard-earned wisdom in a man’s world. Tellingly, it is understood that society-snubbing Vellini is nothing special to look at, while well-bred Hermangarde is achingly lovely.
Thesps are a treat, with dreamy newcomer Aatou in a powerful debut that’s sure to register in casting circles. Argento’s brazen demeanor, husky accent and outrageous wardrobe suit her role as Vellini. Sarraute, a distinguished journalist and commentator who last dabbled in acting more than 50 years ago, conveys the bemused authority of actresses such as Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg.
Location work strikes the right balance between chamber drama and the great outdoors. Helmer Breillat favors longish takes and wrenching close-ups, fetchingly lensed by Greek vet Yorgos Arvanitis.
Given the tale’s chronology, Aatou’s unblemished chest should have boasted at least one scar; and the makeup crew should have covered up Argento’s lower back tattoo. But these are quibbles in a narrative concerned with the functional divide between love and passion.
Although the feelings and longing depicted are universal, the language is Frencher-than-French. Subtitles of the highest order will be needed to do justice to the dialogue’s subtleties as the pic makes its way to international markets.
Breillat continues to recover from the crippling stroke and cerebral hemorrhage she suffered in late 2004, but her brain is obviously up to speed, and then some.