She's been called "the reigning terror of French cinema," "the high priestess of highbrow provocation" and "a dauntingly courageous connoisseur of carnality," but I prefer to think of Catherine Breillat as Simone de Bouvoir with a strap-on dildo. Highly theoretical, but in a very sexy way, her films are like porno for eggheads, turning sexual desire - especially female sexual desire - into a thesis topic while holding on to its tumescence. Breillat employs full-frontal nudity, male and female, so casually that we sail straight past its shock value into deeper issues, where the purely physical gives way to the purely spiritual, where repression gives way to expression. Freud famously asked what women want. Breillat has given us an earful.
The Last Mistress, Breillat's latest, supplies a couple more insights, but even Freud might say he's seen it all before. A costume drama, the movie's set in 1830s France, when the country was still trying to decide whether it was a republic or a monarchy, with the aristocracy holding on for dear life while the bourgeoisie gobbled up all the chateaus. Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is technically an aristocrat, but he's low on cash and too much of a libertine to maneuver his way into a better situation. He's also hopelessly in love/hate with a Spanish courtesan he's been seeing for 10 years, the legendary Vellini (Asia Argento), who knows just how to string him along. Theirs is a classic case of l'amour fou, each of them feeding on the other's entrails.
And they might go on like that forever if it weren't finally time for Marigny to secure his position via marriage. The bride-to-be is so lovely it's ridiculous, and the groom-to-be makes the mistake of falling in love with her, which sends a shock wave up and down the spine of a certain Spanish courtesan. The Last Mistress may sound like one of those movies where marriage is a form of politics, both sides jockeying for position. But Breillat, who adapted a controversial 1851 novel by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, is much more interested in the steel-barbed ties that bind Marigny to Vellini. She shunned him at first, all those years ago, which only made him fall for her that much harder. But it's after they fall in and out of love (but not out of each other's bed) that they start to go really crazy.
Supposedly do, anyway. In a movie like this, so much depends on the actors, who have to sweep us up in their unbridled passion, not to mention convince us that they're worthy of someone else's unbridled passion. Personally, mine remained bridled. As Marigny, Aattou has the plushest lips money can or can't buy. And his hair's real nice, too. But he seems less like a jaded roue than like a snotty teenager. (He's supposed to be 30.) Argento, who has made playing emotionally deracinated women something of a specialty, hurls herself at Vellini, but her brazenness is no substitute for true mystery. It's not that she doesn't plumb the depths, it's that her depths aren't that deep. What's needed is a legendary actress, a crazy woman, Jessica Lange at her most unhinged.
The member of the cast who left the biggest impression on me, ironically enough, was Roxane Mesquida as Marigny's fiancée. She's a ripe peach, no doubt about that, but there's a pit in there you could crack a tooth on. Unfortunately, there's not much for her to do except pout and sneer. The Last Mistress, the original title of which, The Old Mistress, was adjusted for youth-obsessed American audiences, is fine as far as it goes, but Breillat has gone much farther in the past, in such movies as Romance and Fat Girl. Perhaps no filmmaker has delved more deeply into the female libido than she has, but this feels more like a night off, a respite, a sexy costume party. Imagine Dangerous Liaisons, only without any real sense of danger