Last Mistress, The (France, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Last Mistress, The Poster

Director Catherine Breillat is known for her racy and sometimes sexually explicit movies, many of which deal with themes of female empowerment. She has built a reputation in France as a woman for whom no subject is taboo. Her films have depicted full nudity, hardcore experiences (intercourse, fellatio, etc.), and other activities avoided by non-porn filmmakers. Breillat delights in shocking audiences, but perhaps the biggest surprise in store for viewers of The Last Mistress is how relatively tame it is. A costume drama free of many of the director's trademark excesses, this is a study of how sexual obsession can overpower true love. Perhaps it's the lack of sex or perhaps it's the incessant, banal chattering of the characters, but this movie is more likely to inspire sleep than interest. Breillat has done something I never expected from her: made a boring film.

The story unfolds in 19th century France and, if nothing else, Breillat has gotten the period details right. The costumes and settings are as finely detailed as in movies made on much larger budgets. The Last Mistress focuses on a love triangle between libertine Ryno de Marginy (Fu'ad Ait Aatou); his loving but sheltered wife, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida); and his mistress of ten years, Vellini (Asia Argento). Despite having broken off his liaison with Vellini to marry Hermangarde and, irrespective of his love for his young wife, Ryno finds himself being drawn inexorably back to his lover. With pieces of the tale related via flashbacks as Ryno relates his history with Vellini to Hermangarde's grandmother, this tortured story of love and lust is all The Last Mistress has to offer. And, while the themes are potentially compelling, the manner in which Breillat conveys them is not.

The material seems better suited to Breillat's countryman, Eric Rohmer, than to her. She does not have the same knack for writing dialogue or directing the actors delivering it. Since there is much talking throughout The Last Mistress, this becomes a detriment. Unless the dialogue is brilliantly written, it needs to be delivered by well-developed characters, and that is one area where The Last Mistress is lacking. With the exception of Vellini, who occasionally shows flashes of three-dimensionality, the men and women populating this movie are as thin and smooth-textured as paper. Roxane Mesquida, who has appeared in previous Breillat films, is a beautiful woman but has never shown much depth as an actress. Fu'ad Ait Aatou shows all the ability of a young Keanu Reeves. His expression is the visual equivalent of a monotone. Asia Argento brings some vivacity to Vellini, but one wouldn't expect less of such a colorful performer.

By the time the movie reaches its second half, Breillat decides it's time to get her actors naked. So, although there is no flesh during the first half, there's enough from the midpoint to the end to allow us to dismiss notions that the director has turned into a Puritan. Nevertheless, the sex scenes are subdued by her standards. This is pretty standard hard-R stuff: naked bodies writhing on beds simulating copulation. Erotica and passion have never been among Breillat's strengths, so there absence is not a surprise. The sex, like almost everything else in The Last Mistress, is mechanical. When wielded by the right combination of screenwriter, director, and actors, words can be versatile and formidable weapons. Alas, in The Last Mistress, they're duller than butter knives.

Last Mistress, The (France, 2007)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2008-06-27
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1