(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: In 19th century France distinguished, well-bred Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) attempts to remain faithful to his wife Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), a highly regarded young woman of the French aristocracy. When his tempestuous Spanish mistress Vellini (Asia Argento) reappears, offering him the passion and emotional connection he lacks in his marriage, he falls to temptation. His reluctant obsession with Vellini eventually overtakes his conscience, as he succumbs to the deceitful path of infidelity.
– From DVD Production Notes
I didn’t plan on liking The Last Mistress, and yet I did, which I’ve already written about. I think the reason I do is because it’s a culmination and departure from Catherine Breillat’s previous films. I have seen most of them over the past ten years, and while I haven’t necessarily enjoyed them (in fact, I’d argue that a Breillat film isn’t meant to be “enjoyed”) they have given me insight on how a woman can wield her sexual power. The thing is that these films are more like philosophical exercises rather than stories.
Mistress is, without a doubt, a story- based on the novel of the same name by Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly. There is also a distinct difference between Vellini and the protagonists from Breillat’s previous films. These women explored and pushed their sexual boundaries but there was always cost or compromise. Vellini doesn’t seem to suffer in that way. I’d suggest she embodies what Breillat considers “the triumphant female.”
In short: she gets her cake and eats it too. At the same time, Marginy unwittingly makes his bed and tries to flee, but it’s no use. He’s forced to lie in it. Literally.
The casting of Asia Argento is crucial in this film and it seems only natural that she and Breillat would collaborate (they didn’t, however, get along). Argento has embodied sexuality in such a raw, uninhibited and- at times- frightening way that she is perfect for this kind of role.
Without a doubt it is my favorite of hers. She plays someone who shouldn’t win, but does. The odds aren’t in her favor: she is a foreigner, thirty-six years old (she is, in fact, six years Marginy’s senior), a supposed “courtesan on the wane” and an unattractive “mutt.” She is also described as disgusting, rude and unrefined.
But Vellini manages to get what she wants, succeeding where most women fail. That isn’t only remarkable to watch, but for her time, unthinkable. And she does so without a trace of hesitation or regret.
To say she instigates the situation isn’t true. Over the course of a night Marginy recounts his dealings with Vellini to La Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), the grandmother of his bride-to-be. It’s a “clearing of the air,” as it were. He reveals that he met Vellini ten years earlier, that he insulted her the day they met, then impulsively changed his mind. He openly pursued her despite the fact that she was married, let alone how much she spurned and despised him.
This plays out in some of the most hateful and amusing “courtship” scenes I’ve ever seen. Marginy is one of those magnificent, arrogant bastards who is used to bedding whomever he wants. He won’t take no for an answer, propositioning Vellini, stalking her and then publicly humiliating her. This leads to a duel between Marginy and her husband (another scene I love) in which Vellini shows up as a “witness” and dressed as a man to boot. Marginy thinks this is funny and she hisses, “I hope my husband kills you!”
But things don’t go quite to plan.
What a viewer wouldn’t expect- as well as the other characters in the story- is just how serious Vellini and Marginy’s relationship is. It persists over a decade, without fidelity or marriage, and yet they’re tied together. The only thing is that Marginy doesn’t understand how deeply tied he is to her. This is foreshadowed in a scene where Vellini tells him, “You’re my prisoner. Later you’ll be my slave.” Of course, this is early in the relationship and he equates it with sex- it only turns him on. By the end of the film it has taken on a completely different meaning.
The conflict is Marginy aspiring to something else, namely loving the young, rich and inexperienced Hermangarde. There is no doubting that his feelings are genuine, that she may even be his redemption. But Vellini isn’t having it. After meeting for their supposed “last” tryst she says she hates him, to which he replies:
In retrospect I can’t help but think: Oh buddy, just you wait.
It’s strange to watch the ruin of a man and enjoy it somewhat (I do confess I feel sorry for him as well). I’m sure Breillat enjoyed making it. Perhaps it’s because the playing field is leveled a bit. Marginy acts out a tired cliche and what most women in a relationship fear: he discards an older, supposedly less desirable lover for a young, beautiful girl in her teens.
But he fails. His love for Vellini ruins him. I’ll never forget his face the moment he realizes it, crushed and vulnerable as a little boy. He later confesses to her: “They say that in battle, when thoroughbred horses are lightly injured by a bayonet, a mysterious attraction for pain urges them forward to impale themselves right to the heart. It’s the same with you, since the day I saw you again.”
Hermangarde is the injured party of this love triangle, and her naiveté makes it hard not to feel for her. After all she didn’t ask for any of this. Her suffering is especially hard to watch because it transforms her immediately. To be honest I think Roxane Mesquida is an underrated actress. It’s easy to be blinded by her beauty. But you can’t discount how she played her entire role with hardly any language, at times stationary and nearly unconscious, and nail her fledgling rage and anguish so well.
One of my favorite scenes is Marginy discovering her collapsed on their bed, still in the clothes she wore when she spied him and Vellini together. He removes her stockings and prepares her for bed but she hardly moves. You know she will never move for him again, that he might as well be interacting with a corpse.
Some could think of Hermangarde’s actions as an act of self-preservation or rejection, but they also play into societal rules. These maxims loom large in the background of Mistress, regardless of how often they’re ignored. A couple of aristocrats, La Comtesse d’Artelles (the always wonderful Yolande Moreau) and Le Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale), bookend the film. Their performances are delightful, particularly in regard to their mutual friend, La Marquise de Flers (Sarraute, who is also terrific), and how they judge Marginy’s actions from afar. In the end, Mistress isn’t only a story of love, sweat, blood and tears, but of the time it took place in. Like our own, it’s just as strange and hypocritical.
As time has gone on it seems that Mistress was the closing of a chapter for Breillat, perhaps a farewell to everything she had made before. It features cameos from the female leads of her previous films: Caroline Dulcey (Romance), Anne Parillaud (Sex Is Comedy) and Amira Casar (Anatomy Of Hell) (Sarah Pratt, the star of Brief Crossing, ended up on the cutting room floor) as well as Mesquida, who collaborated with her in Fat Girl (2001) and Sex Is Comedy (2002). Since then she has moved on to reinterpreting fairy tales, including Bluebeard (2009), The Sleeping Beauty (2010) and the forthcoming Beauty and The Beast. Although these films also deal with issues of femininity and sex, they are moving in another, less explicit direction.
Breillat claimed that Mistress was her most accessible film at the time of its release. That may be true, making it easier to digest… or at least watch more than once. I can’t imagine doing the same thing with Anatomy Of Hell, for example.
In comparison I find the unsuspecting downfall of Marginy fascinating, as well as the woman who brings him there.