One of the great joys of cinema is the way it can transport an audience back to a distant time and place, making us believe that we are experiencing a story set many years before we were born; perhaps even before the birth of cinema itself. Over the past few years, we have been blessed with a number of films that have mastered this art; films like There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The New World all managed to immerse us in a flawlessly realised world. Sometimes, though, something will stick out – a single performance, or even a single line of anachronistic dialogue – that can have the effect of shattering the illusion created by the filmmakers, and such an occurrence can be found in Catherine Breillat's new film The Last Mistress. In it, Asia Argento gives a fair performance as a fiery seductress, and the film's makeup team have obviously gone to great lengths to cover her many tattoos, but somebody appears to have missed a spot. Late in the film, during a sex scene (this being a Catherine Breillat film, there are a few), a huge piece of body art can be seen emblazoned across Argento's lower back. It's certainly not the kind of thing you'd expect to see in 19th century Paris.
Then again, one wouldn't expect to find Catherine Breillat in 19th century Paris either. Her 11th feature as a director is quite a change of pace from the kind of film she is most readily associated with. Breillat has been making films for over thirty years, but her major breakthrough came in 1999 with Romance, an envelope-pushing picture that was at the forefront of the crossover between pornography and arthouse cinema. Her work since then has occasionally been brilliant (I was ready to hail 2001's À ma soeur! as a masterpiece, before the inexplicably awful final ten minutes soured the experience), but it has mostly been criminally dull and self-important, with her last effort, 2005's Anatomy of Hell, being one of the worst films I have ever seen. So, it's refreshing to see this obviously intelligent and thoughtful filmmaker branching out, taking her distinctive style into a genre usually known for its taste and refinement, and the end result is a very watchable costume drama with a couple of terrific moments.
The Last Mistress does take an awfully long time to get going, though. Breillat's adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's novel forces us to sit through a great deal of dull exposition before the story starts to heat up. Most of the film's first half unfolds in flashback, as the young aristocrat Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) recounts his long, tempestuous affair with Spanish demimondaine Vellini (Argento). He is telling this story on the eve of his wedding to the beautiful, chaste heiress Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida, making her third film with this director), and he assures his listener – Hermangarde's grandmother – that this relationship has now ended, with only his bride-to-be now being worthy of his love and devotion. If this claim were true, though, we wouldn't have much of a movie, and Marigny spends the rest of the film vacillating between the two women in his life, as Vellini maintains an irresistible grip on his heart.
Perhaps we shouldn't be altogether surprised that Breillat's take on the costume drama only starts to get interesting when the clothes start to come off. The first scene that really caught my attention in The Last Mistress occurred after Marigny had been injured in a duel, and Vellini leaps onto his prone body to lick the blood from his wound with vampiric vigour. Asia Argento isn't a great actress, but she has an undeniably effective screen presence, and Breillat capitalises on that, using it to give Vellini a fiery, exotic quality. At times, she actually seems like the most masculine figure in the film; Breillat's choice of lead actor, non-professional Fu'ad Ait Aattou, is an androgynous presence, while Hermangarde is presented as a virginal, angelic figure – the ideal of femininity in contrast with Argento's seductive whore.
As Vellini gets her hooks into Marigny, the film gradually starts to get its hooks into the viewer. The Last Mistress is a pleasure to look at, with the first-class set decoration and costume designs being well served by Giorgos Arvanitis' cinematography. In all respects, this is a much classier and more restrained piece of filmmaking from Breillat, and it's all the better for it. She respects the traditions of the costume drama genre while still playing the game by her own rules, and the few scenes in which we see Breillat's true nature coming to the fore are all the more powerful for being part of a less confrontational whole. The film features a stunning interlude set in Algeria, in which Vellini and Marigny's relationship is struck by tragedy, and Breillat brings a harsh emotional intensity to a number of scenes in the final third.
However, despite those individual moments of intensity, The Last Mistress as a whole doesn't quite have the impact I was hoping for, perhaps because it's too easy early on to see where the story is going. Breillat has made a compelling, handsome costume drama with more edge than most, but she can't manage to pitch it above a certain level. Still, this is a welcome change of direction from this filmmaker, and one wonders if Breillat – who suffered a stroke prior to the filming of The Last Mistress – will now continue to find new avenues for her keen interest in sex and sexuality. In a recent interview she described Anatomy of Hell as "the end of a necessary cycle", and the next cycle in Breillat's career might be the most fascinating yet.