The Last Mistress Review
A literary adaptation, based on a novel by Barbey d'Aurévilly from 1851, The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse) marks a significant change of direction for the controversial director of A ma soeur (Fat Girl) and Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell). It’s a change however that was perhaps inevitable and necessary for Catherine Breillat, returning to filmmaking semi-paralysed after a brain haemorrhage in 2004 and attempting to rebuild her career almost from scratch. Amusing and unlikely though the idea of Catherine Breillat romping with Asia Argento through a Dangerous Liaisons period drama might seem however, to all intents and purposes the frank and idealistic treatment of romance in the sexually liberated and enlightened post-Laclos period fits in perfectly with themes elsewhere in the director’s work.
It’s the period that is vital to how events play out in The Last Mistress, the film opening with two characters, the Countess d’Artelles and the Vicomte de Prony (Yolande Moreau and Michael Lonsdale), like bitter aged versions of the Marquise De Merteuil and Vicomte De Valmont, bemoaning the fact over dinner that, in the post-Les Liaisons Dangereuses era where everything is permitted in matters of the heart, the only sin left is gluttony. Still, there’s some amount of pleasure to be found in gossiping and asserting one’s influence over society marriages and, scandalised by the news that the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute) has promised the hand of her granddaughter Hermangarde de Polastron (Roxane Mesquida) in marriage to an ordinary citizen, Monsieur Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou), a penniless gambler, libertine and a womaniser, the Countess and Vicomte intend to do their utmost to prevent such a union.
The Marquise de Flers however is not unaware of what has been said about Monsieur de Marigny. On the contrary, having lived through the period of Laclos, or perhaps romanticising it through her reading of novels, she understands the passions that rage within the young man that have led him to recklessly carry on a 10-year affair with his mistress, the Señora Vellini (Asia Argento). Heedless of wagging tongues, the Marquise de Flers is however confident of the sincerity of Marigny’s feelings towards her granddaughter and believes that their marriage will be a strong union. Ryno does indeed intend to give up his older mistress for the beautiful young heiress, but La Vellini is not to be underestimated, and the young man has much to fear in the scandal that this passionate and intelligent woman can still create.
There’s no doubting the authenticity or the attention to detail lavished on the marvellous script, period costumes and production design by Breillat and her team, brought to the screen with the fluidity and meticulous lighting and framing of cinematographer Giorgio Arvantis. With a racy plot involving the rakish behaviour of the French aristocracy, seductions and challenges in affairs of the heart, a duel, exchanging of witty remarks and bon mots, the film has everything in place for the classic French period drama. Without betraying the integrity or authenticity of that setting however, Breillat also manages to bring her own touch and modern perspective on events, drawing in references to Carmen in La Vellini’s costume and attitude, delighting in the symbolism of blood to represent sacrifice, bonding and passion that is almost at the level of vampyric bloodlust.
Breillat has of late shown a tendency to push those kind of elements to the extreme in her films almost to the level of self parody, but in Une vieille maîtresse she is forced to draw back to meet the demands of commercial filmmaking and a more conventional narrative drive. Rather than this being considered as a compromise or softening of her approach however, it’s a reminder rather of just how good a filmmaker Breillat can be. The inspired casting is daring yet appropriate, finding balance between older professional name actors of the aristocratic establishment (Lonsdale, Moreau), the progressive Breillat contingent (Parillaud, Casar, Mesquida) and the freshness of inexperienced and rebellious youth who play by their own rules. In the case of the latter, Argento certainly finds an appropriate vehicle for her unique style, while the soft-spoken and impossibly handsome Fu'ad Ait Aattou unexpectedly proves to be the perfect Ryno, giving a rather more nuanced expression for Breillat’s conflicted masculinity than we are accustomed to seeing in her films.
The Last Mistress is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Giorgio Arvantis’s sumptuous photography is transferred exceptionally well onto DVD in this edition, capturing the detail and textures of the period costumed and production design. Colours are fine and skin tones are wonderful, the overall tone tending towards a cool rather than a warm register, which seems appropriate. Blacks are not always perfect, lacking shadow detail and occasionally discolouring with low-level noise, but not to an excessive or troublesome level. Grain is also evident and some very minor flickering in backgrounds, but the essential tone of the film and the print seems to be accurate here.
The film comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mixes. Both are excellent with a lovely tone, though the surround that captures better the sense of ambience and faint echo of the stately rooms.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional.
The extra features are not extensive, but informative and well-produced. The film’s Trailer (1:24) is included, showing a warmer colouration that looks too red. An Interview with Catherine Breillat (24:10) covers the director’s ambitions for the film, her identification with the novel and the novelist, her approach to the costume design and casting and a little bit on the characters and their relationships. It’s a little bit formal rather than the typically more open Artificial Eye reviews, dutifully giving credit to the crew, but it’s informative nonetheless. The Deleted Scenes with Commentary are introduced by Breillat. One brief scene and one longer encounter feature the Comtesse de Mendoze, referred to occasionally in the film, but strangely not a major presence on account of these cuts. The DVD also includes Artificial Eye trailers for other releases.
Typically immodest, Breillat would claim that The Last Mistress was not only an attempt to rebuild and revitalise her filmmaking career after her illness (one that unfortunately has since had a further setback), but to show that even "half a Breillat" is worth more than the rest of French cinema ("Une moitié de Breillat, ça vaut tous les cinéastes français... Et ça, je veux le montrer par mon film"). It’s unlikely many will agree that she achieves that ambitious aim, but although it is relatively light, mainstream-accessible and far from as challenging as her previous works, The Last Mistress is far from half-measure Breillat. There’s no skimping either on Artificial Eye’s DVD release, which presents the film well and includes good and informative extra features.