The intro sequence of The Last Mistress feels like the opening moments from a wittier 18th-century French costume drama; something along the lines of Dangerous Liaisons. The gender battles that encompass notions of sex, sexuality and class -- and the parlor games they inspire -- come forth in a flurry of character and plot.
As soon as we know the game and its players, director Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, Romance) switches gears from a drama to a tragic love story. It makes the film both unpredictable and revealing, even while flirting with conventions, but also reaffirms Breillat's unique place in cinematic feminism.
Asia Argento of the wacko Argento filmmaking family (Mother of Tears), is Vellini, the title's fading courtesan. A heady and erotic mixture of Spanish and Italian, she only plays at being a kept woman. She discards her older wealthy husband for a younger lover, Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aît Aattou), in an affair that lasts a decade.
In another era, that might as well be a marriage, right?
But the affair appears at its end when Ryno announces his engagement to the younger and wealthier Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). Ryno's enduring fling with an older woman from a lower class has earned him a reputation as a cad, and his fiancee's grandmother, La Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), forces him to explain himself. Idealist though she may be, the grandmother wants reassurances, so Ryno tells the story of he and Vellini's decade-long affair to put her fears to rest.
The story unfolds in flashback sequence, and even though Ryno narrates, it's Vellini who earns the most sympathy. That's partly due to Argento's fiery performance. With her raven trusses and smoldering eyes, Argento plays the man killer well, but also reveals her vulnerabilities as a victim of class and male whimsy. A prospective lover speaks of her as one "who can out-stare the sun" one moment, but then, in a bit of vague racism, dismisses her as being "a bit Moorish" the next.
Breillat's at her feminist best when she contrasts the male and female perceptions of love.
Vellini arrives at her predicament from the way the men in her life treat her. A peeved older lover of Vellini's, a count, sniffs, "In love, the first to suffer has lost." And even though Ryno tries to end their affair before the wedding with the simple belief that "You don't cheat on the one you love with the one you no longer love," Breillat proves we're not as simple as our pronouncements.
Breillat turns a lot of heads with her cinematic portrayals of sex, and The Last Mistress won't tame her reputation. She captures Vellini and Ryno in various positions and states of sexual repose, and in those scenes we see people fighting each other just as much as they're fighting to find a certain form of happiness. Some critics have found the sex "mechanical," as if Breillat's supposed to turn her version of a bodice-ripper into costumed porn. What's easy to miss, however, is how we use sex, not how we feel during or from sex. It's a weapon as much as a need, and in those breathless moments her characters are at their most innocent.
But it's a fleeting thing, and it comes with consequences. In The Last Mistress, Breillat has made a Dangerous Liaisons with a body as well as a mind and soul.