Dir: Catherine Breillat. Fr-It. 2007. 114mins
Seasoned provocatrice Catherine Breillat puts a predictably louche spin on the costume drama genre in An Old Mistress, her adaptation of an 1851 novel by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly. Well known for her sexually explicit and intellectually confrontational dramas such as Romance and Anatomy Of Hell, Breillat here shakes historical drama out of its petticoats, with a torrid but rigorously executed tale of bohemian amour fou.
An arresting departure for Breillat, and much more accessible than her more cerebral recent films, An Old Mistress should score at the home box-office - especially given the recent warm reception of Jacques Rivette's Balzac adaptation Don't Touch The Axe - and the mixture of classy production values, sexual content and intellectual clout should make it a hot pick for distributors and festivals alike.
The film, set in Paris in 1835, recounts the troubled amours of handsome young fop Ryno de Marigny (Ait Aatou) with Vellini (Argento), a Spanish courtesan whose liberated behaviour is the scandal of the town. Ryno is due to marry the beautiful, wealthy and virginal Hermangarde (Mesquida), but first has to sever his long-standing, and now soured, liaison with Vellini - who loves him still, despite the growing element of hate in their relationship and her concurrent affairs with other Paris grandees.
Much of the film is framed as a flashback, as Ryno narrates the history of the affair to the elderly Marquise de Flers (an impish Sarraute),
Hermangarde's grandmother, whose roots in the libertine 18th-century make her surprisingly unshockable.
Ryno first meets Vellini when she is married to a doddering English aristocrat, and her initial contempt for the young blade is clearly a mask for her attraction: when he's wounded in a duel with her jealous husband, she starts hungrily licking the blood off his chest.
The character of Vellini is a femme fatale in the grand manner, and it takes a truly flamboyant actress to give such a part its due. The role is made, in fact, for Asia Argento who, while there's a touch of anachronism in her punkish insolence, gives Vellini much the same swaggering, dangerous sexuality she brought to her Madame Du Barry in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette.
While some of her scenes are clearly pitched with provocation in mind - notably a scene where she tearfully makes love right in front of her dead child's funeral pyre - Argento rises to the occasion with a brooding taste for carnally-charged melodrama, whether it's scrunching a wine glass at Ryno while dressed as the Devil at a costume ball, or her pricelessly callous 'Adios' on leaving her husband.
Anais Romand's extravagant costumes further enhance the character's theatrical charisma, especially when echoing Marlene Dietrich's role in Sternberg's The Devil Is A Woman.
Breillat's film without doubt contains the most explicit sex, and talk about sex, ever seen in a historical costume drama. Her script proposes a provocative feminist take on the original material, with Vellini featuring as a defiant repository for her society's fears about female sexuality, foreignness and age (supposedly ugly and old, Vellini is actually only 36, and visibly a stunner).
Aid Aatou makes a seductive, highly feminised hero, and lively support from Michael Lonsdale and columnist and broadcaster Claude Sarraute helps offset occasional overtones of staginess.
Photography, by Breillat regular Yorgos Arvanitis, and lavish design emphasise the contrast between the staidness of the salon world and the heightened and somewhat fantastic exoticism that Vellini embodies.
The opening title is a typical bit of Breillat provocation - we're told that the film is set in 1835, 'in the century of Choderlos de Laclos', whereas in fact the author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses was a quintessential 18th-century writer.
France 3 Cinema
From the novel by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly
Fu'ad Ait Aatou