Film : Love & marriage don't always go together
Love, sex, and luscious 19th-century costumes make "The Last Mistress" a perfect cinematic confection for Valentine's Day. French director Catherine Breillat has built a reputation for erotically charged movies, like "Romance" and "Fat Girl." "The Last Mistress" ("Une Vieille Maitresse," which translates less seductively to the old mistress) falls into that category with a tale about the addictive powers of sexual passion.
The setting is early 19th-century France during the post-Revolution reign of France's last king, Louis-Philippe. It is introduced anachronistically as the age of Choderlos de Laclos, author of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," the famous 18th-century novel about the romantic dalliances of the French upper class.
The movie opens as two aging members of the French aristocracy gossip over a meal. Their topic concerns the upcoming marriage of a penniless libertine, Ryno de Marigny, played by newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aaittou who was discovered by the director in a Parisian café. Ryno is about to marry a wealthy young ingénue, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), and the match scandalizes Parisian society because Ryno has for 10 years carried on with a femme fatale of doubtful reputation, named Senora de Vellini, played by Italian sensation Asia Argento.
Vellini proves to have a mesmerizing hold on Ryno, even though she is the illegitimate offspring of an Italian princess and a Spanish matador. She first appears, reclining seductively in a Goya-esque pose, when the elderly Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) informs her that her lover Ryno plans to marry. A visit from Ryno follows, and it quickly becomes clear that their love affair still smolders.
In a visit to Hermangarde's grandmother, La Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), Ryno vows that he loves his fiancée and will give up Vellini. An extended flashback follows, in which the young man recounts to the Marquise how he met the Senora.
The narrative in "The Last Mistress" runs along two tracks. Director Breillat brilliantly distances the love affair by framing it from the perspective of the elderly aristocrats who have lived beyond the blandishments of sexual passion. While they may be too old to participate, they aren't too ancient to enjoy the details of Ryno's and Vellini's love affair. Even Hermangarde's grandmother, her feet propped up on a stool, relishes the story.
The main entertainment, of course, comes from the recounting of Ryno's and Vellini's liaison. Initially Ryno inspires Vellini's hatred, after he casually dismisses her at first glance. Her dislike sparks his interest, and the chase is on. Soon a duel takes place between Ryno and Vellini's elderly husband, in which the young man is wounded, and "la belle dame sans merci" becomes smitten.
This feminist-oriented director has put the power of sexual passion under the microscope in ways that seem particularly modern, despite the costumes and the time period. For instance, viewers may want to ask themselves how well Ryno and Vellini fit as the avatars of male and female sexuality.
The senior-citizen aristocrats make a prediction at the start about what will happen. Do they guess right? How important is their role in the movie? See the movie to discover who gets the last word in "The Last Mistress" and find out the fate of Ryno and Vellini.
Following the film there will be a reception and fashion show at Che's Lounge featuring vintage clothing.
"The Last Mistress," Saturday, Feb. 14, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8 ($5 for Martha's Vineyard Film Society members). Doors open at 7 pm. After the screening, a reception and fashion show of vintage costumes from Chrysal Parrot's l'Atelier will be held at Che's Lounge.
Brooks Robards writes about film, art, and books for The Martha's Vineyard Times.