Monday, July 7, 2008
The Last Mistress
Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress is a film marked by profound tension, and not just the tension stirring within and between its divided characters, but the tension it creates within the genre of the period romance from which it draws both its story and its style. Based on a mid-1800s novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, the film relates a classic, even archetypal, tale of misplaced love. The young "libertine" nobleman Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is preparing to finally settle down and marry the lovely Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), but there remain questions and rumors about his passionate ten-year affair with his Spanish mistress, Vellini (Asia Argento). This is a story of sexual passions invading the lavishly decorated drawing rooms in which the film is primarily set, of visceral, physical desire overwhelming even the most well-meaning "pure" emotions.
The main agent of this infiltration is Argento herself, who quite literally seems to have come from an entirely different, more lurid film than her surroundings. Set off against the wan, pallid Aattou, who's so heavily made up with powder and reddened lips that he looks more feminine than his lover, Argento is a vivid, powerful presence, unrestrained by either social conventions or the strictures of good acting. She delivers a totally unhinged performance that never fails to sell her unconventional magnetism and attraction, even if it's not always convincing as conventional dramatic acting. She's the epitome of the earthy seductress: her sneering lips with a hint of fuzz above them, crooked teeth, hooked nose, piercing black eyes, and a curvaceous body that, with her complete lack of self-consciousness, is allowed to simply be, to move naturally and without modesty, in sex and in the way she walks alike. It's certainly no mystery why Aattou falls in love with her, even though he calls her an "ugly mutt" on first sight. It's not quite as obvious why she should fall for this handsome but taciturn young man, surely like hundreds of others in Paris at the time.
Then again, this may be part of the point. Aattou unmistakably belongs to the world of the chic Parisian salons, the drawing rooms, the polite society that sneers at a "creature" like Argento, looks down on her as subhuman. Argento simply does not belong, and doesn't want to. She's a much more modern creation than anyone else in the film Breillat's framing of the otherwise uninhibited sex scenes mostly succeeds in obscuring Argento's copious tattoos, but even so she can't help but reveal a fleeting glimpse of the ink on her back, just above her butt. When measured against the film's overall carefulness in obscuring this body art, it doesn't feel like an accident, but a conscious acknowledgment of the extent to which Argento's very persona shatters the film's commitment to period realism. Her character often seems to have come directly from a hard-edged 50s Western, a tough saloon gal thrust into a Victorian romance. In one of the film's most striking and memorable scenes, she smokes a tiny stub of a cigar in a dark parlor, blowing smoke rings while she watches the men play dice. This scene is masterfully orchestrated, with Argento first facing a mirror, letting out wisps of gray smoke, in sharp focus with the whole rest of the room blurry in the mirror behind her. Later, when Aattou is at the table playing, a smoke ring wafts across the frame from offscreen, briefly encircling his face, a tangible reminder of Argento's out-of-frame presence, her fierce seductive power.
In scenes like this, she calls to mind no one so much as the Mexican actress Katy Jurado, from countless Westerns but especially as Gary Cooper's former lover, and the subject of enduring scandal, in High Noon, a film that has unexpected resonances with Breillat's film. Argento has the same force, the same sultry Mediterranean quality, as Jurado, but there are crucial differences in the two films' treatments of the love triangle. While Cooper leaves Jurado, without second thoughts, for the virginal, blonde, blue-eyed, and white Grace Kelly, Aattou only thinks he is in love with the very similar Mesquida, a noblewoman standing in for Princess Grace. It may be, of course, that Breillat did not have such specific examples in mind, though she is quite obviously responding to the archetypes that govern High Noon, and indeed most of Western culture in general, with regard to women, race, and sexuality. Argento is the film's real woman, one who unabashedly enjoys sex, who is as aggressive and self-assured as a man, who is unrestrained by the fear of what society might have to say about her. She is also olive-skinned; Argento is Italian, but believably plays a Spanish interloper in Parisian society, especially as compared to the artificially pallid Aattou. She is, essentially, the woman one is supposed to have a fling with but never marry. Even Aattou, when he first sees her, dismisses her as "pure vice," based solely on her superficial appearance. In contrast, Mesquida is the virginal wife, pure and almost completely impenetrable, in both senses; she is a mystery within the film, barely present in its first three-quarters and opaque even after the couple's marriage, her thoughts demurely hidden in contrast to Argento's messy openness and emotionality. This too is a reversal of sorts, a subversion of the typical story where the focus is on the wife whose husband is unfaithful to her. This is not the story of the poor wife, but of the husband and his mistress, and the overpowering love they feel for each other.
Breillat continually emphasizes these tensions and contrasts. The film's very structure is designed to introduce disjunctions between the sexual and the austere, the genuine love and the fragile imitation. The bulk of the film's middle section consists of Aattou recounting, to Mesquida's worldly and knowing grandmother (Claude Sarraute), the story of how he met and embarked on a ten-year affair with Argento. This reminiscence is contained within flashbacks long enough to forget the framing device, but Breillat continually returns, for brief interludes, to the sedate parlor where the story is being told over the course of a single long night. These interludes are often severe breaks from the reality of the story, with Breillat cutting directly from the lovers intertwined in convoluted sexual positions to a shot of the old woman lounging on her couch listening to this decadent tale. The grandmother positions herself as a wise, sophisticated figure as she listens and then, at the end, still accepts Aattou as a suitable husband for her granddaughter, believing him when he says (quite earnestly) that he is done with his former mistress for good. Of course, one can't help but wonder why this intelligent, experienced woman doesn't realize what must inevitably happen, why she doesn't realize just how deep Aattou's love for his mistress really is it can only be social blindness to the possibility of such love even existing. At one point, several of the upper-class characters express amazement at the idea of a relationship that lasts for ten years without the bonds of the law (marriage) compelling the lovers to remain together.
It is this debased conception of both love and marriage that Breillat sets out to attack, not from a coolly feminist point of view but from a stance that privileges the extreme emotional states of the lovers, as well as glorying in the physical pleasures that love can hold for both partners. In one scene, Aattou makes love to Argento while recounting to her how one of his society conquests is disgusted by the very thought of sex, how she keeps her legs closed, looks away from him, gets no pleasure from the act. Argento's response is articulate and moving: "some women don't know what it is to feel love." The wedding scene is equally eloquent about the film's ideas on sexuality and romance, posing another dichotomy between openness and oppression. At the beginning of the wedding, a child reads a passage from the New Testament that was, he says, selected by the bride and groom. It is from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19, about the nature of marriage: "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female... For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh." This is immediately followed, with a jarring cut to a priest shot from a low angle, by a homily in which the priest explains the essential subservience of women, who are by nature subject to men, created for the sake of men, and marked with signs of men's authority over them.
The disjunction between these two very different religious responses to marriage is all the more striking for the fact that they are both based on the exact same story, in Genesis, of God creating Eve from Adam's rib. The first quote, besides its expected focus on the man as the active partner (he is "joined to his wife," not the other way around), is surprisingly egalitarian, presenting marriage as a fusion of two bodies back into the one they originally were. This is a very sexual view of marriage, one that is borne out by the rest of the story that the child reads. When Jesus is questioned further about what he says, he basically responds that not everyone is cut out for this fusion, and that if one is better able to live as a eunuch, so be it. In contrast, the priest's stern homily is a more sinister interpretation of the Adam/Eve split. For this priest and for the dominant religious hierarchy in most of history marriage is not an equal fusion of two souls, but a master/servant relationship that returns the missing "rib" back to its proper owner. That two such different interpretations could arise from the same Biblical material, and that the one more damaging to women should be the one to take hold, is a major thrust of Breillat's commentary in this scene.
As should be obvious from this cursory gloss of the film's themes and structures, there is a great deal of intertextual and metatextual commentary going on within The Last Mistress. Breillat cleverly, sometimes wittily, uses the surface conventions of the period drama to riff on the treatment of women in relationships and the suppression of female sexuality by both religious and societal forces. The film itself, on its surface, is not always successful in its exploration of churning tensions, and it especially boils over perhaps too much during a shrill and melodramatic sequence in the Algerian desert. Still, the film is never less than interesting even when it outreaches its grasp, and every scene seems calculated to generate further thought about the multiple implications of this story. It's a fascinating and deeply thought-provoking work.