Catherine Breillat’s adaptation of a Barbey-D’Aurévilly novel, “The Last Mistress” is that rare period piece in which characters and their relationships are rendered with as much precision and detail as the set and costumes. Everything in the film is stunning, from the opulent trappings of 19th century Parisian aristocracy to Asia Argento’s heartbreaking performance as the courtesan Vellini, and Breillat manages to make the story timelessly relevant as well.
On the eve of his marriage to the meticulously brought up, wealthy, and icily beautiful Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) has some loose ends to tie up, namely his ten-year affair with the Spanish divorcée Vellini. The older generation, who view love and marriage as little more than politics and fuel for witty conversation, look upon Ryno’s libertine past with indulgence, but speak of Vellini as if she is hardly human. When Ryno recounts all the details of the affair to Hermangarde’s grandmother (Claude Sarraute) to assure her that all is over between him and Vellini, the courtesan emerges as the most recognizably human character in the film. The despair, need, and hatred that kept Ryno and Vellini together for ten years proves more difficult to put aside for the sake of a financially and socially fortunate match than any of the elders seemed to anticipate.
“The Last Mistress” is a true pleasure to watch. The photography is more than equal to the beauty of the sets, costumes, and principal actors, and the visuals are as revealing of the film’s themes as the dialogue. As Ryno tells Hermangarde’s grandmother of his affair, the camera often stays uncomfortably close on his face. Scenes in Paris are cramped and filled to the brim with ornate furniture and exquisitely dressed aristocrats, while the coast where Ryno lives with his new bride is expansive and lonely, in shades of grey and muted blue, with hardly ever more than three people on screen at a time. Shots in Paris are complex, with much artful use of mirrors and doorways, while on the coast they are simpler, wider, and more open, but infused with melancholy.
The acting in “The Last Mistress” is stellar all around, but Asia Argento’s performance is brilliant. From the first moment she appears on screen, the audience is captivated. She lounges in her boudoir in a Moorish-flavored costume and purrs her lines like a Delacroix painting come to life, the epitome of a Decadent-era courtesan. As the film progresses, however, she transforms the character from a desirable but morally bereft stereotype to a devastatingly real woman who experiences sexual love, hatred, and grief with a raw passion that is more moving than mere beauty. She maintains her exotic sexuality throughout, but brings an emotional intensity to the role that makes Vellini and her plight timeless.
Every aspect of “The Last Mistress” works together to create a gorgeous, riveting, emotionally intense whole that many period films aspire to but few execute. It is about as perfect as a movie can get.