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« The Fate of the Six Pack | Main | Another Self-Promotional Break »

July 31, 2008

Moviegoing: "The Last Mistress"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


As big a fan as I am of the films of Catherine Breillat, I only half-believed her latest movie. Her first costume drama, her first period piece, and her first adaptation, it's like a very quiet "Dangerous Liaisons" -- the catch here being that the film is set in the early 19th century (the age of the bourgeois) rather than the aristocratic 18th century.

I'm pretty sure that Breillat wouldn't be displeased to hear that I take her to be saying something about how the present day stacks up compared to the 1960s and 1970s.

The setup, roughly: An impoverished, serial-seducin' Parisian aristocrat has lined himself up a choice marriage with a virginal heiress, yet can't keep his mind, his feelings, or his body off of the coarse Spanish spitfire he has been sleeping with for a decade. It isn't just about emotional gamesmanship, le jeu de l'amour, in other words; it's about money.

The film isn't very dramatic. It plays like the novel adaptation that it is -- in other words, like a miniseries that has been condensed into two hours. And Breillat's decision to have Asia Argento's post-punkette aggression and gaucheness stand in for the senorita's fire and allure didn't seem to me to work out very well.

All that said, the film still delivers a lot. There's acres of spare / opulent visual and aural beauty to be enjoyed; a reckless and headstrong sensuality at satisfying war with a love of formality and restraint; a tender yet objective attentiveness to the translucency of flesh that's especially startling in the context of today's movieworld; and a lot of cineaste poetry involving imagery of silent-movie vamps and film noir spiderwomen. And Breillat comes through with some moments of her distinctively loony intensity.

Let it be noted too that Fu-ad Ait Aattou -- the nonactor whom Breillat spotted at a cafe and chose to play her hero -- makes an amusingly haughty and androgynous cad. Tall, prettier than any girl, and blessed (or cursed) with the Cupid's Bow pout of a Fragonard darling, he's a seductive freakshow all by himself.

I sat through the film quite happily, though The Wife did a fair amount of impatient squirming. In any case, I'd urge those new to Breillat to start with one of her other films -- "Fat Girl," perhaps, or "Romance." You'll love it or you'll hate it, but you'll certainly have quite an experience. There's no one out there quite like Catherine Breillat.

Semi-related: I enjoyed Breillat's brilliant chamber drama "Brief Crossing" (here). Back here, I was agog at Asia Argento's "Scarlet Diva." Watch a trailer for "The Last Mistress" here. Read some interviews with Catherine Breillat, who recently suffered (and has recovered from) a major stroke: here, here, here, here. She's an amazing interviewee.



posted by Michael at July 31, 2008


I had a tough time parsing my reactions to this one.

Dramatically, I thought it hit the skids once the guy got married. At that point the central conflicts (lust vs. love, sex vs. money, etc.) start to wear thin. It's as though Breillat has tossed her last molotov cocktail and has resorted to throwing sticks.

This might be because she's trying to get inside the head of the androgyne male in this one, whereas in her other films the boys always serve as relatively shallow instigators of female thoughts and emotions (which are Breillat's bread and butter). It doesn't help that the conflict the guy is experiencing isn't a very interesting or original one. He can't leave the Spanish hussy because he loves screwing her. We're told this over and over again; I'm not sure we feel it.

On the other hand, I was mostly satisfied while watching it, and there were a few moments when I even felt sorta enthralled. So I left the theater on a mild high. (Maybe this has something to do with the low quality of movies I've seen in theaters lately?)

Breillat continues to improve as a craftswoman. There's a terrifically dry, clipped quality about the movie that's a little reminiscent of late Bunuel. And it's gotta be the movies' best approximation of Ingres that I can recall seeing...which is to say I agree with Michael when he writes that it displays "a reckless and headstrong sensuality at satisfying war with a love of formality and restraint." Definitely!

Posted by: Ron on August 1, 2008 8:40 AM

Any hardcore actual doing-the-deed in this one? (Speaking of Euroflic sex, I recently downloaded some scenes from Betty Blue from a "site", and yowza, the actors certainly seemed to be actualizing their potential in that one, let me tell you).

I ask partly out of lechery, perversion, soul-sickness, and the love of evil that's increasingly dominating me these days, but also out of interest in the question of whether Breillat is a pornographer. I'd say no, since actual ****ing and ****ing aren't always in her films. This means that--gasp!--the hardcore stuff that is, might be there for--double gasp!--artistic reasons.

P.S. Canada suffered for many years through the worst TV talk show ever, called Open Mike--staggeringly bad, you really had to see it to get its vomitous horrificality. But he would often have porn stars on, many of whom proved charming, intelligent and likable, e.g., Nina Hartley and Ron Jeremy. Jeremy was asked by the host what defined porn as "hardcore". Jeremy provided the single best definition I've heard, and it was one word long:


So maybe movies can be hardcore and yet not pornographic. Novel concept, at least for this boy.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 1, 2008 9:21 AM

I was bored silly by this movie. The problem was that I had entered the theater at the last minute and the only seat I could find was a middle of the row seat. So after banging against twenty knees to get to my seat I was too timid to get up after the first half hour and bang the same twenty knees to get out. So I sat there and endured the next hour which felt like three. That's my review. Thank you.

Posted by: ricpic on August 1, 2008 3:04 PM

Haven't seen TLM, but I thought I would mention that an English translation of Breillat's novel, "Pornocracy" has just been published by Semiotext(e) under their "Native Agents" imprint. It features an introduction by Chris Kraus, an appending interview by Dorna Khazeni, and an outro by my pal, Peter Sotos.

Posted by: Chip Smith on August 3, 2008 1:23 AM

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