Sometimes a film is as good as its cast. While a group of bad actors will never bring success, an exceptional performer can make a solid film into a standout. This is the case with “The Last Mistress,” an adaptation of a 19th-century novel in which the French well-to-do amuses itself by gossiping about the latest scandal. The milieu is ripe for social commentary, while the scandal in this film is ready-made for melodrama. Yet director Catherine Breillat, who has fixed a critical eye upon the politics of female sexuality in many films, is too interested in her characters to deliver just a series of thrills. Here Breillat directs one of the most thrilling actresses working today, and the latter makes this calculated study into a tale brimming with passion and sorrow.
Asia Argento is the mistress in question, and imagining the film without her is like picturing a non-Bardem “No Country,” or “There Will Be Blood” with Day-Lewis still on leave. For these two performers, method acting is not an aim; it’s as standard to the job as are the words “Action” and “Cut.” Argento, who should be nominated by the Academy this year if justice is to be served, brings the same level of focus and verity to her challenging role. The French-language film “The Last Mistress,” which will be in limited release and available On Demand on Friday, June 27, seems made for Argento, yet she singlehandedly achieves the film’s ambitions.
Argento’s La Vellini is the cause for much gossip in Paris, 1835. The illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a Spanish bullfighter, she is as exotic a number as any Parisian could indulge himself in. Her flagrant demeanor turns heads non-stop; even the men who call her “a bit moorish” or a “mutt” take notice. While she’s married to a wizened Englishman, she consummates with a physically desirable social climber, Ryno de Marigny (newcomer Fu’ad Ait Aattou, thick featured yet androgynous), who eventually positions himself to marry into a solid family. One he does, he swears to Vellini that their affair is finished, but his words mean nothing next to his excitable demeanor.
Prior to his wedding, Ryno sits for a fireside chat with the grandmother of his intended, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute). A matriarch and a perennial gossip, she’s quite smitten by the young man, even if she knows his secret. She urges him to tell her the full story of his affair with Vellini, which turns out to have lasted ten years. While the Marquise acts as if she wants a confession from him, she really craves the details. Ryno’s story serves as a flashback that lasts a good part of the film, and it transitions his affair from a game between two stubborn youths into a prolonged, inseparable attraction.
When Ryno and Vellini first meet, he is so intent of bedding her that he stalks her on horseback to a riding spot. As her aged husband catches him forcing a kiss on her, Ryno whips him in the face without a second thought. With an official quarrel over a lady, who’s present to boot, the two must take pistols for a duel, and when Ryno misses intentionally, Vellini’s husband shoots him right in his chest. The wound that leaves him near death for months simmers Vellini’s blood, and she runs to him to suck his wound and quell her passion. The details of the plot sound irredeemably melodramatic. Yet once Vellini discovers the feelings she has for Ryno, Argento’s fiery presence makes their passionate encounters into the real thing, and should make many of us wish we could experience something on that level.
But we wouldn’t want her overall experience, which we can tell early on is going nowhere positive. After leaving Paris (and her husband), she loses Ryno, who returns and becomes engaged to the Marquise’s granddaughter, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida, from Breillat’s “Fat Girl”), who’s fair skin and frigidity cause a new found turn-on for him. However, old flings with Vellini die hard, and she’s soon lurking about to bring him back to her bed. When she gets him there, Argento depicts the power that a woman in such a predicament would use to gain control.
For all the commanding, Spanish-tinged French phrases that Vellini speaks to Ryno, Argento delivers volumes more in her vivid physical performance. Breillat’s camera often comes in for a closeup, and Argento’s face ignites the frame with emotion. In Asia, it looks like the filmmaker has finally met her match.