The Last Mistress (France/Italy; 114)

directed by: Catherine Breillat
cast: Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Michael Lonsdale, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau
Une Vieille Maîtresse

Michael says: "A new Catherine Breillat film is always something that sparks my interest, and in her latest film, the first after the director endured a serious stroke, Breillat tries her hand at a period piece... a true costume drama set in the early nineteenth century. Based on writer Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s notorious novel of sexual intrigue, UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE charts the tempestuous ten-year relationship between young Ryno de Marigny and the foul-mouthed, half-Spanish libertine Vellini. Now that Ryno is engaged to marry the virtuous gem of the French aristocracy, Hermangarde, he must come clean about his past to her grandmother La marquise de Flers, who is shockingly understanding. Ryno insists that it is over between he and Vellini, and explains to La marquise the sexual dynamic that kept him in her clutches for so many years. Their late night conversation is punctuated by the voracious sexual encounters and the social manipulations between the young lovers.

"The casting of Asia Argento as Vellini is an interesting choice for Breillat. Argento is not known for her deft acting skills, and her on-screen presence is decidedly modern. Still, she inhabits the roll of Vellini quite well; her unrefined screen presence matching the uncouth Vellini in a way that works for the film. Newcomer Fu'ad Aït Aattou, a barber Breillat discovered at a French cafe, does a fine job as Ryno, acquitting himself nicely despite being chosen quite obviously for his looks. Frequent Breillat collaborator Roxane Mesquida (FAT GIRL; SEX IS COMEDY) adds just enough backbone to the virginal Hermangarde to give her much needed depth. The standout in the cast is certainly Claude Sarraute as the unflappable La marquise de Flers, who takes in Ryno's scandalous story and gives him the benefit of the doubt that he has changed.

"What lifts UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE above the vaguely reminiscent DANGEROUS LIAISONS is the way the two main characters are allowed a range of emotions. There is more than just cruel manipulations behind the actions of the young lovers; true emotions simmering just beneath the surface. As far as the production itself, Breillat, who in her introduction to the film explained her obsession with period details, has taken pains to create an accurate look and feel of the time. The film's budget is more than all her previous films combined, and you can see where the money was spent onscreen. This is a fine continuation of a controversial filmmaker's body of work. 3 1/2 cats

"This film screened at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival"

Bruce says: "UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE is a tale of obsessive love, unusual as it is a reciprocal obsession rather than the more common unrequited love of films like François Truffaut’s THE STORY OF ADELE H or Hector Babenco’s THE PAST. This film has had decreasing staying power with me. To be fair I am not a great fan of costume dramas but, in this case, that is not the source of my waning affection for the film. It has to do with the bitter aftertaste of Asia Argento’s performance. This film’s success hinges on her credibility and she is not up to the task. Fortunately, the man cast as her lover, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, has no prior acting experience. (He performs admirably all things considered.) An accomplished French actor such as Louis Garrel, Roman Duris or Benoît Magimel playing opposite Argento would make her look foolish in most scenes, at least those in which she is fully clothed.

"After a tempestuous ten year romance with Velinni (Asia Argento), a wealthy, titled Spanish courtesan, the devastatingly handsome Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) has decided to settle down and marry Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), a young girl of rare beauty form a socially prominent family. 'Marriage will be my masterpiece,' he declares. To win her hand de Marigny must win the approval of Hermangarde’s guardian and grandmother, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute). The tête-à-tête during which the Marquise interviews de Marigny is absolutely delicious. It is here that flashbacks reveal the true obsession between de Marigny and Velinni. The Marquise consents to the marriage because of de Marigny's directness and honesty, not to mention her titillation during the very long evening of storytelling.

"A friend, fully aware of de Marigny’s relationship with Velinni warns, 'Don’t cheat on the one you love with someone you no longer love.' In their social circle are the Count de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and the Countess d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau) who at various points in the film move the story along with vicious gossip and choice personal opinions about the salacious liaison. Their conclusion is that de Marigny will eventually attempt to have his cake and eat it, too.

"Breillat’s film has many fine attributes. The visual design is scrumptious, befitting the story. The balance of the cast is superb, particularly Michael Lonsdale, Yolande Moreau and Claude Sarraute. Claude Sarraute at the age of eighty has only two other screen credits – a short film and a made-for-television drama. The combination of her comedic timing mixed with a bold, flirtatious air is something to behold. 3.5 cats

"This film screened at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival"