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The Last Mistress

Argento is not a great actress but when used well she commands attention and defines her characters with an effectively aggressive physicality. So in some ways she is the perfect creative match for French director Catherine Breillat who's made a reputation as a provocative feminist filmmaker with works such as Fat Girl, 36 Fillette , and Romance . Both women seek to challenge sexual stereotypes, push gender boundaries, and generally just rattle the cage of established social order. They are also both fearless in exploring female sexuality in a manner that is both intellectually provocative and physically explicit. As Vellini, Argento is in her element and Breillat knows precisely how to use her.

Asia Argento as The Last Mistress (IFC Films)

As the story begins, we discover that Vellini and Ryno have been having a love-hate relationship for a decade. But now Ryno has found a beautiful young blonde noblewoman Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) who is the physical and emotional opposite to Vellini. He seems genuinely in love with her, and in need of a break from Vellini. Hermangarde's grandmother, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), has been tasked vetting Ryno to determine his true intention. She's a tough but fair-minded old lady and her session with Ryno is the core of the film as he recounts his long and tumultuous affair with Vellini. The Marquise wants to hear it all, in part because she wants to make sure Ryno will make her granddaughter happy, in part because his tales remind her of her youth, and in part because she's fascinated.

In many ways The Last Mistress is Breillat's most accessible and least strident film. She captures something of true romantic obsession, something completely aside from the sexual politics that usually consume her work. Her film is based on a controversial novel by Jules-Am ed ee Barbey d'Aurevilly from the 19th century, but harkens back to Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons as well. Vellini and Ryno are victims of their own passions, and in their obsessions she finds something both tragic and heartbreakingly sincere.

The Last Mistress (unrated but for mature audiences and in French with English subtitles) serves up a slow burn of sexual passion. It's a bit languid at times but overall Argento and Aattou strikes sparks, and Argento makes Vellini a fascinating creature.

Companion viewing: Trauma (Argento's feature film debut for her dad), Fat Girl, Romance

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