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‘Last Mistress’ Delineates Love, Lust

August 1, 2008

By Soren Andersen, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

Aug. 1–He’s a beauty. She, not so much.

With his flawless skin, slender build and plump pouty lips, Ryno de Marigny (Fu-ad Ait Aattou) looks like a very young Mick Jagger, an androgynous lady-killer who makes conquests effortlessly.

With a nose a little too prominent and a forehead a little too large, the woman known as La Vellini (Asia Argento) is far from the most glamorous woman in Paris in 1838. (The screenplay is based on a controversial 19th-century novel by Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly.) And at 36, she’s not the youngest lady who’s ever caught the roving eye of a rake like Ryno.

But she has a certain something. Ryno senses it. Filmmaker Catherine Breillat explores it in “The Last Mistress.”

Call it a fateful attraction.

It’s a certain something that provokes lust. Then it inspires love. Love fades eventually, but ardor remains. Breillat digs deep into the distinction between those two powerful emotional states.

The picture begins with Ryno’s engagement to a virginal beauty from the nobility named Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). It develops by means of a genteel inquisition of the swain conducted by the bride-to-be’s worldly but protective grandmother (Claude Sarraute). Through that device, Breillat jumps back in time to the start of Ryno’s 10-year affair with La Vellini.

The suitor traces a trajectory of repulsion (he calls her an “ugly mutt” on first sight, and she is not pleased), attraction, temptation and obsession.

It’s not a healthy relationship, and they both recognize it. “We were each other’s victims,” Ryno tells the grandmother. The victimization turns bloody in several instances, most memorably in a surgery scene after Ryno is wounded in a duel. The sight of his blood stirs the passions of the hot-blooded Vellini in a manner that verges on the vampiric.

The sex scenes are quite explicit, but they’re not particularly titillating. The couple’s lovemaking can’t transcend the emotional chasm that ultimately opens between them.

A callousness manifests itself in its late stages. Questioned by La Vellini as to how he can claim to be deeply in love with Hermangarde when he’s just spent an afternoon in his mistress’s arms, Ryno responds that “you can’t cheat on the one you love with someone you no longer love.”

Breillat, who has explored female sexuality with pitiless boldness in past films such as 2001′s “Fat Girl” (which also starred Mesquida), brings that same perspective to “The Last Mistress.”

The period costumes and set design are opulent, but there is great stringency in the way she handles her two main characters. They are able to analyze their relationship without illusions but are wholly unable to break free of each other. Their rationality is no defense against incomprehensible passion.

Soren Andersen: 253-597-8660 * * *

The Last Mistress

In French, with English subtitles

Director: Catherine Breillat

Cast: Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Anne Parillaud, Michael Lonsdale

Running Time: 1:54

Rating: Unrated; sexual situations, nudity, violence

Where: Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma; showtimes, Pages 26-27

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