Friday, June 20, 2008

The Last Mistress: IFC Center, Starting June 27, 2008

Catherine Breillat's most recent movie, curiously titled The Last Mistress in English (its French title, Une vieille maîtresse, would probably be best translated as "an ex-mistress"), opens at the IFC Center on Friday, June 27. I think it's Breillat's best work since Fat Girl. Here's what I wrote about it for my 2007 Toronto piece in Senses of Cinema:

"Catherine Breillat’s Une vieille maîtresse was reasonably well-received at Cannes, but not well enough for my taste: typed as a niche provocatrice, Breillat is never granted centre stage in the world film arena, even with her critically successful projects. An adaptation of a 19th-century novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, Une vieille maîtresse steps back from the grandiloquent philosophising of Romance (1999) and Anatomie de l'enfer (2004) and picks up the more multivalent discourse of earlier Breillat films like Parfait amour! (1996) and 36 fillette (1988). Of course, Breillat would not choose source material that did not challenge our conception of what a period film is supposed to be. At times, the movie seems to be about the attempt of a disreputable playboy (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) to find love and respectability with a young bride (Roxane Mesquida) and her surprisingly sympathetic grandmother (Claude Sarraute); more substantially, it depicts the long-term, intimate but unstable relationship between the playboy and a temperamental Spanish courtesan (Asia Argento); and, in passing, it documents society’s effort to understand and assimilate these difficult citizens. Breillat changes narrative gears several times, forcing us to plunge into an uncomfortable intimacy with the characters after an emotionally distant first act, and then letting our hard-won identification die away in a final section whose bleak ellipses reminded me of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974). Wrestling with the iconography and the mores of two separated centuries, Breillat throws out unexpected character and social observations like a Roman candle. Her vision of cruelty and empathy operating hand in hand in human nature gives her enormous freedom to inflect dramatic conventions, and she passes back and forth with assurance across the invisible barrier that separates sexuality from the rest of our lives."

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