The French director Catherine Breillat has always been walking a line. Some will easily say she definitely stepped on one side and that her work is pornographic, while others will always defend that she is far away on the other side because her movies are about so much more then sex. With films like Une vrai jeune fille and Romance, it is no wonder she is often associated with words like ‘controversy’ and ‘censorship’.
In a way, she has built her entire career on such perceptions of her work, starting at 17 as a forthcoming writer (her books were also censored) and moving on as a director of numerous controversial movies. She is famously known for her full frontal nudity and her obsessive taste for young women’s discovery of precocious sexual behaviours. This time, she gives us the impression of having drastically changed her path of contentiousness.
Breillat’s latest release, The Last Mistress (La vieille maîtresse) is a 19th century tale of love between a young man named Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) and his long time mistress, Vellini (Asia Argento). The movie starts with the revelation of the future marriage of De Marigny to a respectable woman of the French aristocracy. As the rest of the story evolves, we are exposed to the ten years’ love affair between De Marigny and Vellini through several flashbacks and then finally to terrible destruction.
This film is obviously very different from Breillat’s other creations. It is, without a doubt, her most mercantile movie up to date. There is no graphic sex. There is no sign of controversy and very little place for censorship. It might easily appear as a shift towards a more commercial side from the enfant terrible of the French cinema. Or it might not.
When you actually look deeper into the scenery, most of Breillat’s predilection themes emerge. There is this constant intensity loved in both protagonists, and an almost studious way of showing the rawness of the human being, as well as a steady stripping of the lovers’ soul. She explores, yet again, the character of a strong-minded woman. It is what she has always done, except this time; she moved her story in a different time and place. She uses strong headshots in which she captures all of the passion of her characters. We can read every single line of their faces, every single shift of their glances. We can feel the blood running through the veins of the impetuous Vellini and see the despair in the emerald eyes of De Marigny.
There are long scenes, long dialogues, and long steady shots. There are long moments in which your mind might wander elsewhere. It is an adaptation of a novel and you might feel the parts which were copied and pasted, in which the dialogues are word-for-word injected into the mouths of the actors. For some, The Last Mistress will feel heavy, but for others, it will be a delight of language.
Another important (and evident) point is that it is a French movie; well, Asia Argento is not French (nor Spanish as her character may imply) and all French speaking viewers will unmistakably notice it. She has a strong accent and while she tries to overcome it, it still gets heavy in some parts. She still plays her role in a feline manner, and the depth of her intensity crosses languages, but the scenes in which she does not appear give us a break of constantly needing to try to understand what she is saying, and allow us to simply enjoy the beauty of some dialogues. Subtitles are welcome to anyone, French or not.
On the other hand, the model turned actor Fu’ad Aït Aattou is a great discovery. With absolutely no background in acting, he seems to have slipped the De Marigny character on like a glove—a perfect fit. The natural ease withwhich he incarnates Vellini’s lover is simply remarkable. His beauty, almost comparable to a Renaissance painting’s model, is also a great asset.
Finally, Breillat has taken a new step. She has definitely crossed on the ‘good’ side of the line with this film. Some will miss the ambiguity of her previous work, while others will be able to enjoy her exploration of human emotions. The Last Mistress is Breillat’s way of showing us she can do a “commercial” film without loosing her self in the process.