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The Last Mistress

Lust, No Caution

Catherine Breillat, the French director of Fat Girl and a celebrated provocateur, has acknowledged that her films tend to be preoccupied with female sexuality and its power to sway the hearts and minds of men. Her latest, the luscious, early-19th-century drama The Last Mistress, is no exception.

From the start, it seems to focus on Ryno (newcomer Fu’ad Aït Aattou), a dashing young libertine ready to renounce his scandalous ways for a life of marital fidelity. His longtime mistress, a tempestuous Spaniard named Vellini (Asia Argento, fearless and physically imposing), has other ideas. She acknowledges her lover’s desire for stability and upward mobility in the arms of a pretty but hopelessly chaste aristocrat (Roxane Mesquida). Problem is, she doesn’t particularly care -- and neither, after a time, does he.

Based on Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s controversial novel, published in 1851 and quickly condemned as a wholesale endorsement of extramarital promiscuity, The Last Mistress isn’t really about Ryno as much as it concerns Vellini’s power to win him back, time after time and against his nobler instincts.

She is steely in her resolve and manipulative when it suits her, but Vellini is hardly invulnerable. As the unlikely heroine in a tale of dangerously compulsive liaisons, she freely indulges her passions, if only because the alternative is heartbreak. Ryno, who imagines himself capable of greater self-control, tries to embrace monogamy, but it doesn’t take. He, too, is a slave to passion; he just happens to be less self-aware.

Ryno’s betrayal of his naïve bride is a crushing but seemingly inevitable humiliation for her, and though it leaves a bittersweet aftertaste, there is undeniable joy in witnessing his reunion with Vellini. These are fierce creatures who submit to temptation with a consuming zeal, and while there is rarely tenderness in their affections, there is very real love.

That their unconventional romance incurs the contempt of their peers matters little to them. Ryno is branded a shameless rogue, Vellini a whore, but so what? In their furious embraces they find something close to bliss, and that, for them, is enough.

For us, it comes as a welcome relief. Ryno and Vellini are neither calculated nor wicked, unlike the mischievous anti-heroes of similar period pieces like Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont; they are simply bound to each other by forces even they do not understand. Aattou plays his role with the supreme self-confidence of a man in control, his deep blue eyes radiating calm, but Argento seems to know better. She is a wild, physical force, a primal fury who could only be resisted if she were to allow it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars