Catherine Breillat’s Une Veille Maitresse (2007) opens with the title card, “au siècle de Cholderlos de Laclos” (in the period of Cholderlos de Laclos) placing the next 104 minutes or so firmly in the decadent aristocratic milieu of the epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the many theatre and film adaptations that form part of our cultural memory. Yet this is also a look at that heady period of French history with a difference. In adapting the novel of the same name by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, The Last Mistress is able to use her source material to not just evoke the late Romantic milieu of Laclos, but also to create a meta-fictional frame to explore generational warfare, domesticity versus sexual freedom, gender relations and historical recreation at large.
In Romance (1999), Fat Girl (2001 Sex is Comedy (2002) and Anatomy of Hell (2004), Breillat established herself as perhaps the boldest provocateur of the French cinema since Jean Eustache blew apart the self-absorption of the Generation of 1968 in Mother and The Whore (1973). This series of controversial films depicted on-screen sex with a combination of explicitness, critical rigour and lack of sentiment. They managed to be autobiographical, self-critical, satirical and formally challenging in a way that few films by her contemporaries were, and – arguably – have been since. In 2004, Breillat suffered a cerebral haemorrhage that brought an abrupt halt to this bold creative streak.
In spite of it being a period film, with its requirement for lavish costumes, beautiful locations and attention to historical detail, The Last Mistress is a return to basics. While it shares a very modernist look at the past with films like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) or Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtman’s Contract (1982), it feels more hermetic and self-enclosed than these predecessors.
Opening in Paris in 1835, smug, self-satisfied aristocratic couple Le Vicomet de Mareuil (Michael Lonsdale) and La Comtesse D’Artelles (Yolande Moreau) discuss the dubious prospect of Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou). He is a nobleman of modest means with an addictive devotion to his mistress, La Vellini (Asia Argento), but is marrying the virginal Hermangarde (Roxanne Mesquida). While perfectly accepting of Ryno’s need for a double life – the same life of almost open marriage she and her peers explored in their youth – the couple are also determined to see the appearance of aristocratic order, tradition and marrying within one’s class maintained. As La Vellini has lived most of her life as a courtesan, she is simply not an appropriate wife. And although Ryno made a great show of visiting his mistress for the last time, it is clear that he is only acting out a social destiny.
This ambivalence is made even clear by the film’s second framing device – a long flashback in the form of a confession – when Ryno visits Hermangarde’s grandmother, La Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), to reassure her of his renunciation of his libertine ways and conversion to marital bliss and courtly love. It is clear from the bemused response of La Marquise that she has no illusions about Ryno as he recasts his ten-year affair with La Vellini as l’amour fou, but is far from judgemental. Like the Le Vicomet and his wife, she is also a veteran of the sexual revolution of her time, and in listening to Ryno’s epic tale of romantic obsession seems both nostalgic and sympathetic in her response.
This flashback takes up the core of the film in which the viewer sees – through Ryno’s retelling – how he first met La Vellini, who was then married to the much older Sir Reginald. She ignores his approaches at first, but when he is almost killed during an almost comic duel with Sir Reginald, she is won over. They elope for a brief happy period to Algeria where she bears Ryno a child. The child dies after being bitten by a scorpion, and La Vellini is almost driven mad with grief. The couple return to France and continue their affair, but it has lost much of its mad cohesion. What is left amidst a growing recognition that Ryno must soon conform to social expectation and pick a suitable wife is a deep friendship that still carries a powerful erotic charge for both participants.
Ryno’s grandmother accepts the superficial renunciation of his past and he marries Hermangarde. The final third of the film deals with the newlyweds’ seemingly idyllic honeymoon period, spent in a stark castle by the sea. Ryno goes through the motions of becoming a dutiful husband, looking forward to the birth of a new child and appearing to the grandmother and La Comtesse the epitome of upper class stoicism. Yet in reality, he and La Vellini (who has moved to a cottage nearby) are still lovers – their affair is arguably the only real continuity in a social order where appearances are everything and true feeling a barrier to mobility.
In The Last Mistress, Brellait deconstructs the early 1800s in such a way to give the viewer more than just a recreation of the manners and mores of the past through set and costume design Breillat sustains a wry tone of cool irony that Luis Buñuel would have admired. Social conventions are not so much upheld as given a fresh coat of paint in the hope that they will weather the next tectonic shifts that the industrial revolution will bring to France. And if not, there is a hint among the attitudes of most of the characters in Breillat’s film that a new set of codes will reinforce the timeless contradictions and hypocrisies that keep the ruling class in power. Formally the film consists largely of drawing room tableaux. Breillat – who required the services of an insurance director in the form of Claire Denis as she recovered from her illness – makes a virtue of her small budget.
Casting was important for Breillat. Bringing with her name and presence the aura of Italian giallo cinema, Asia Argento adds both dignity and pathos to the often thankless role of femme fatale. For the part of Ryno, Breillat said she needed a “young Alain Delon” (although Fu’ad Aït Aatto might evoke a young Mick Jagger for some viewers).1 Similarly, the participation of Michael Lonsdale, Yolande Moreau and Claude Sarraute brings both humour and credibility to the elders who walk a tightrope between bourgeois complacency and post-carnal world weariness.
While audiences at the time of The Last Mistress’s release were perhaps expecting something more overtly transgressive, the film is a bold excursion and reworking of the themes often glossed over in more celebrated historical depictions of the period. Breillat seems to have been renewed by working with traditional literary source material: her next two films – Bluebeard (2009) and Sleeping Beauty (2010) – explore the tension between sexuality and social convention through the lens of the fairy tale as well as period drama with results both thought-provoking and unsettling. It could also be argued that these excursions into the past aided Breillat’s complicated recovery process (which she would explore with candour in her 2013 film Abuse of Weakness (2013), and also reassured nervous producers that she could still face the demands of shooting a complicated feature in spite of her medical history.
Une Vielle Maitresse (The Last Mistress) (2007 France/Italy 104 mins)
Prod Co: Flach Film CB, France 3 Cinema Studio Canal, Buskin Film, Canal Plus, Centre National de la Cinematographie, TPS Stat and Region Ile-de- France Prod: Jean-Francois LePetit Dir: Catheine Breillat Scr: Catherine Breillat based on the novel by Jules Bardey Phot: Yorogos Arvanitis Ed: Pascale Chavance Art Dir: Francois-Renauld Labarthe Assistant Dir: Guillaume Lavit d’Hautefort
Cast: Asia Argento, Fu’ad Aït Aatto, Michel Lonsdale, Lea Seydoux, Yolande Moreau, Nicholas Hawtrey