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At 30, boyish penniless aristocrat Ryno de Marigny has separated from Villini, a passionate Spaniard and his mistress of 10 years. He's now in love with Hermangarde, a young, wealthy, and titled virgin. Days before the wedding, the bride's grandmother sits Ryno down and insists on knowing if his affair is over. He relates a story of passion, which we see in flashbacks, swearing he loves only Hermangarde. After the wedding, the couple moves to a castle by the sea. And Villini? Can passion survive disgust and self-loathing? Written by
Milan Kundera writes: "Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition." Case in point, Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou), an impoverished but elegantly handsome young man who is trapped between the aristocratic world to which he aspires, and an obsessive bond with a defiantly independent mistress, the boldly seductive Vellini (Asia Argento), an older but dazzling Spanish woman said to be born of an Italian noblewoman and a bullfighter. Adapted from a 19th-century novel Une vieille maîtresse by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, Catherine Breillat's beautiful and elegant The Last Mistress, challenges the patriarchal assumptions of the age by depicting a 36-year old woman's right to fully express her sexual desires even if it is means flaunting society's conventions and Christian misogynist teachings.
Set in Paris in 1835, complete with elaborate period costumes and sumptuously decorated drawing rooms, the film opens with the gossip between two aging aristocrats, the Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and his wife, the Countess d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau about the ten-year affair between de Marigny and Vellini and the young man's impending marriage to the wealthy Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). Hermangarde's grandmother La marquise de Flers, excellently played by the 80-year-old French writer Claude Sarrate, is an open-minded and rational individual who claims to be a woman of the 18th century. Worried that Ryno will not be able to get over his passion for his fiery Spanish mistress, de Flers listens attentively as Ryno relates to her the details of his long relationship, an affair that he says has now come to an end, telling her that "You don't betray a new love with an old mistress".
In flashback, Ryno relates how he was overcome by Vellini's wild beauty after they were introduced at a party ten years before. Vellini, then married to a wealthy but dull Englishman, reacts negatively, however, when she overhears Ryno call her an ugly mutt and the young man is forced to vigorously pursue her despite her strong objections, forcing her to kiss him while the two are out riding. Her horrified husband witnesses the act and challenges Ryno to a duel the next morning. After deliberately missing his first shot, Ryno is shot in the chest, a wound from which he will take months to recover. The incident, however, triggers Vellini's awareness of her love for Ryno, exotically announced by her sucking the blood from the gaping hole in his chest.
De Flers presses Ryno for the details of their life together during the past ten years but the dramatic story is better left for the viewer to discover. When the film returns to present time, de Marigny and Hermangarde are married and ostensibly in love, yet he struggles to keep his word to her grandmother by moving away from the temptations of Paris to a remote seacoast. The cigar-smoking temptress, however, also loves the fresh sea air and the stage is set for the film's final act. The Last Mistress is an outstanding work of art that is strengthened immeasurably by striking performances by Asia Argento and first-time actor Fu'ad Ait Aattou. Argento fully captures Vellini's sexual assertiveness but tempers her incendiary disposition with naturalism and a tenderness that makes us care about her fate.
Aattou, discovered by Breillat in a crowded café, is almost feminine in appearance with overly thick lips and sensitive eyes, yet he brings a masculine determination to the role that makes him completely convincing. Like the recent film by Jacques Rivette, The Duchess of Langeais, in The Last Mistress love becomes a contest of wills, a power struggle between two people whose relationship consists of a tug of war not only between domination and submission but between 18th and 19th century social codes. That Breillat makes the ride so entrancing is a tribute to her enormous talent.
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