Sex is such an unalloyed force in Catherine Breillat's films that it actually seems to consume narrative. Among a controversial lot that includes Fat Girl (2001) and Romance (1999), The Last Mistress is unique for its classical trimmings, but its plot points and character development are still no more or less important than the emotional content of a moan. All the French writer-director's films are anatomies of hell, but this time she's courting provocations instead of simply imposing them. The thickening of Breillat's stock may be due to her 2004 stroke, or her decision to adapt an earlier work (the film freely elaborates on an 1851 novel by Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly), or the fact she's finally snagged an actress who enlarges her take on female appetite-for-destruction.
That actress is Asia Argento. In performances typically labeled raw or animalistic by a mostly male press, the daughter of Dario bottles up the rage simmering underneath every black magic woman and femme fatale in film history. It's telling that Argento's daredevil acting style doesn't conjure other actresses so much as rockers like Diamanda Galás, PJ Harvey, and Courtney Love women who live on the literal edge of a stage.
In The Last Mistress, Argento isn't so tongue-in-cheek that she's willing to slobber a rottweiler (as in a much-discussed moment from Abel Ferrara's 2007 Go Go Tales). Breillat has given Argento a character who dovetails with her persona. Her Vellini is constantly described as a creature and, in a key moment, as a mutt. Her titular courtesan rumored to be the illegitimate offspring of an Italian princess and a Spanish matador is conjured by flashbacks and the looks and idle gossip of others. The film opens with a churlish count and countess plotting to inform Vellini that the object of her longtime amour fou, Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou), is marrying the virginal Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). Our first image of Argento a double-portrait of actress and character, stretched over a divan in a classic pose of seduction instantly explodes any element of Merchant-Ivory farce, with the actress already burnishing the angry glow of her character's typecast destiny.
A moment later, Vellini is relishing Ryno's porcelain weight, her pleasure-hungry visage adjacent to the glassy eyes and growl of a stuffed tiger head. The shot suggests Breillat is playfully embracing her unsubtle craft. Radical plot offensives aside, she isn't so different from Joseph Mankiewicz in her camera movements, editing, and composition. Her reactionary feminism might sink into serviceability except for one thing: when it comes to staging and directing her actors' body language, she's a master.
Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley (2006) flushed cheeks where Breillat's dark drama gnashes teeth, but the films are united in loosing their actresses to trammel over history. Ferran crafts an amorous epic; Vellini climaxes only a few minutes into Last Mistress, raising the discomfiting question: what if the enabling (and ennobling) freedom that lets us do as we please only turns us into slaves of desire? The answer might look something like Sofia Coppola's fizzy tonic of lethargy and shopping, Marie Antoinette (2006), though Argento's supporting role as Comtesse du Barry in that film practically beggared Breillat's fleshy rejoinder. Where Sex and the City's infantilized Manhattan suggests constant airbrushing, woman directors such as Breillat make Paris drawing rooms, Versailles, and the French countryside shimmer with unsettled agendas.
THE LAST MISTRESS
Opens Fri/18 at Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at sfbg.com