City Paper is not for tourists
A 19th-century bodice-ripper starring Asia Argento as a lady of a certain reputation sounds destined for a two-word summary: pretty trash. And for the most part, that’s all The Last Mistress is—but damned if it doesn’t suck you in like a late-night rerun of Rock of Love. Catherine Breillat, a French director with a history of exploring sexuality and gender politics in films such as Fat Girl and Romance, plays with the idea of destructive but irresistible love in her adaptation of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel. Argento is Vellini, the titular half of the story’s liaison dangereuse who’s grown used to the 10-year open relationship she’s had with Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou), a penniless “unbridled libertine” with pillowy Abercrombie & Fitch looks. But Ryno has decided to trade in his whore for a proper madonna and tells Vellini that he’ll no longer be visiting after he marries Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), high-society granddaughter of the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute). None of it is terribly interesting at first; the marriage is gossiped about by irritating old clucks the Comtesse d’Artelles (Yolande Moreau) and the Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale), the latter having enjoyed an occasional dalliance with Vellini. And Argento’s casting as an edgy slut—she kisses a girl! she licks blood off her lover’s chest!—seems like just another tired opportunity for her to stretch her body instead of whatever acting chops she may indeed possess. When the Marquise de Flers hears exactly how long Ryno’s affair has been going on and demands that he tell her all the sordid details of their history, however, it’s a move that saves the film: Ryno’s abrupt attraction to the woman he first deemed an “ugly mutt” may be eye-rolling—he loves how she hates him—but soon their relationship is portrayed as a genuine, complicated love story, with Argento even coming across as sympathetically vulnerable in a scene or two. Ryno’s confession also includes lots of explicit sex, which not only doesn’t hurt the film’s watchability but also makes the Marquise look like the coolest grandma alive. “Go on,” she tells Ryno in the film’s funniest scene, drinking port and practically falling off the chair in which she’s comfortably slumped. “I’m enthralled!” You will be, too.