Pretentious Liaisons

Would we let you navigate alone on the ocean of risibility that is this movie?

Catherine Breillat is one of the directors responsible for the worst period in French filmmaking, the late 90s/early oughts, when erect penises, extreme violence and an adolescent's love of transgression were substituted for things like writing and quality. Her Romance, one of the first "mainstream" films to feature actual penetrative sex, was notably awful. But on the plus side, it was deeply, if unintentionally, funny. At least I think it was unintentional; if not, then kudos to Mlle Breillat.

But at some point, the French grew bored of shocks-and-cocks cinema, and Mlle Breillat knew that she had to reinvent herself. So, she turned to the favorite form of filmmakers seeking to escape their genre: the costume drama. Une Vieille maitresse, released here, inexplicably, as The Last Mistress, has some sex in it, but the central focus of the film isn't on the graphic depiction of adult scenes of loving. Instead, it's about, I don't know, feelings or sexual mores or obsession or something. I don't know. What I do know is it includes hilarious dialogue. Like, a woman has arranged her granddaughter's marriage to an infamous rake. When questioned on this move, she says, "Would I let her navigate alone on the ocean of perfidy that is man's heart? This marriage shall be my greatest masterpiece!" Then I think she twirls her mustache.

So, again, Breillat is unintentionally funny, or, if funny on purpose, then she's really pulled something off. Actually, she's aided by whomever did the subtitles, because there are some howlingly bad mistranslations in there that even my crappy, high-school-level French caught. Like, an exclamation that should have been translated as something like "That awful man!" comes out as "That species!" The downside of Last Mistress, though, is that much of it follows the golden rule of the costume drama: Be dull.

But you could easily edit together a 35-minute best-of reel from this film that would truly kick. The plot, in short, is: Ryno de Marigny is a 30-year-old ne'er-do-well and libertine who is engaged to marry young Hermangarde de Flers (Roxane Mesquida). But before he can commence with the nuptial-night hymen-breaking event, he must explain to her grandmother, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute: yes, the French are so full of anti-American ennui that they name their women "Claude"), why it is that he has just been monkey-bumping with Señora Vellini (Asia Argento), his old mistress. Then everything goes flashbacky and a long story is told and etc.

Newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou's, as Ryno, is pretty like a girl. His lips are so thick and sensual that if he were to replace Angelina Jolie mid-job, Brad Pitt would never know the difference.

And Asia Argento is supposed to have bewitched him. Now, Asia Argento is an impressive individual, but she has only mistakenly been accused of being pretty. She's certainly not traditionally beautiful. Rather, she does something much more interesting than the average blank-faced model in order to be attractive. In fact, in the script, Breillat recognizes this and has Ryno refer to Vellini as "that ugly mutt." And then, of course, Vellini is mean to him, so he falls madly in love with her, and he gets to say the line, "That haughty and heartless creature mocks my heart and understanding." Yes. Yes she does. She mocks them.

After that, they have that great "I hate you! Kiss kiss kiss" sequence that's the stuff of cheap parodies of classic Hollywood, and then Vellini tries to have Ryno killed, and then they get very naked and rub up against each other in a manner proscribed by many traditional sects of Abrahamism.

In between, there's a duel with pistols at dawn, somebody drinks a cup of chicken blood, an open wound is amorously licked clean, and, in a sequence that will no doubt live in cinematic history, underarms and crotch are sniffed by Vellini, who proclaims "Ah! The odor of love."

So pretty much Breillat is the Ed Wood of pretentious French cinema. I mean, it's clear what film she was trying to make, but then, as though by accident, she makes a Monty Python-level parody of that film. And if you think about it, in a strictly physical universe where all material motion must be materially caused, free will is an impossibility. So shouldn't we give just as much praise to those who are accidentally excellent as those who do it on purpose?

I think we should. And therefore, for the 35 to 47 non-sequential minutes of Last Mistress that are entertaining, I thank you, Catherine Breillat!

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