French filmmaker and novelist Catherine Breillat’s explicit treatment of violence, sexuality, gender conflict and sibling rivalry have made her one of France’s most controversial and admired artists. Stanley Kaufmann’s review of her latest film to come to North America distinguishes between the portrayal of the sexual in her films, versus the merely pornographic:
The Last Mistress (IFC)
The French director Catherine Breillat uses plentiful sex in her films. This is notable not for its candor, a quality that is nowadays general, but for its cunning purpose. Her easy, open attitude toward sex makes the viewer wonder (this seems to be Breillat’s plan) what the difference is between her films and pornography. So we consider the context of those naked scenes even more thoroughly, and we decide that the context gives her films a thematic texture that pornography never has. The sex thus emphasizes the non-sexual.
Breillat has done it again in The Last Mistress, which she adapted from a novel by the prodigal nineteenth-century author Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. Paris in 1835 is where it begins, with a visit by a handsome and wealthy young gentleman, Ryno de Marigny, to his longtime mistress, Vellini. He tells her that he is finished with her; he is marrying a young woman, Hermangarde, whom he loves.
Vellini, Spanish-born, a Carmen with more money and better taste, is sure that he will be back.
One evening Marigny is with Hermangarde’s grandmother. She knows, as does all Paris, about Vellini, and she charmingly but hungrily asks him to recount his affair. This tale is a large part of the film: it takes Marigny all of one night. He fell in love with Vellini when she was married to an elderly English aristocrat. Marigny persisted; she repulsed. Soon the husband challenged him to a duel. Marigny fired in the air, and the husband wounded him in the chest. As the surgeon was taking out the bullet, Vellini burst into the room and licked the blood from his chest.
Thus began their affair. (The English husband disappears.) The two lovers fled to Algeria, where La Vellini gave birth to their child. The child died, and, true to her wild romanticism, Vellini wanted to burn the body in the desert. They did. She and Marigny, seized by emotions they couldn’t and didn’t want to understand, made love next to the burning body of their child.
Marigny’s account winds to its close, and the grandmother relishes it all. The wedding soon takes place. Hermangarde expects fidelity, and Marigny expects it too of himself, but Vellini has other plans. The picture reaches a conclusion that none of the three principals had foreseen.
As the story moves along, the old Breillat question arises through the vivid sex scenes: why isn’t this pornography? Definitions of pornography are booby traps, but a sexy film that realizes a serious idea stands apart from exploitation. More: with Breillat, the sex certifies the gravity. Yes, the couplings might have been less explicit, but the immediacy–we can almost scent body odors–becomes a verification. Breillat’s film dramatizes the truth that human beings contain more than conventional ideals, which are abstractly calculated. True love in a man or woman does not always prohibit another true love. The film is not about Marigny’s mere philandering: he is bound differently but deeply to two women.
This is hardly groundbreaking news about human nature, but Breillat’s depiction of it is sensual and affecting. Her sensuality is focused on the people: the luxuriant and gorgeous costumes and settingsof the time do not entrance her as they did Jacques Rivette in the comparable Don’t Touch the Axe. To play Marigny, she has found a young newcomer named Fu’ad Ait Aatou, good enough and handsome enough. Asia Argento, as Vellini, is a firebrand, a woman who is attractive even in non-seductive moments when she is angry or downcast or "off-stage." As Hermangarde, Roxane Mesquida, blonde of course, is softly ornamental.
Breillat, born in 1948, has been making films since 1975 and has taken knocks because of her subjects (not all of those knocks undeserved). I have seen only a few of her pictures, including Romance and Anatomy of Hell, but The Last Mistress seems to crown her method and intent–and, one must ultimately add, her courage.
— Stanley Kauffmann, “Flauntings,” The New Republic, July 30, 2008
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