Break My Body
By Lauren Kaminsky

The Last Mistress
dir. Catherine Breillat, France, IFC Films

By her own account, The Last Mistress is Catherine Breillat’s most accessible film, the only one that doesn’t set out to break any taboos. On first blush her claim seems indisputable, since the shock-loving director of Fat Girl, Anatomy of Hell, and Romance has here made a corseted nineteenth-century costume drama. But I have to respectfully disagree with her assertion, even though it comes from the queen of on-screen female sexuality herself.

Taboos are indeed broken in this mature, masterful film, which sets its sights on what might be the last holy commandment of our postmodern, capitalist world: that right and wrong is best defined by hardworking, upstanding, respectable middle-class society. The film is set in Paris in 1835, almost fifty years after the Revolution, twenty years after the abdication of Emperor Napoleon, and only five years after the July Revolution replaced the Bourbon king with the popular Louis Philippe. This bourgeois “citizen king” heralded not only a move toward a liberal, constitutional monarchy but also the rising ascendancy of the middle class. For the aristocracy, the freewheeling eighteenth-century of Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons was over, its libertinism checked equally by the austere righteousness of republican revolutionaries and the prurient morality of the new middle class.

Spurning the restraints of received social norms, the eighteenth-century libertine of the Marquis de Sade was increasingly out of place in the nineteenth century of industrialism and nationalism. The libertine is above morality precisely because he is not bourgeois; he does not need to bow to propriety because (as Karl Marx might say) this leisure-loving parasite is literally above labor and taxation, and therefore bows to no one but the king. The libertine reflects all of our present-day paradoxes in reverse: for the libertine, nothing pleasurable is forbidden because he is above society; for the rest of us, everything pleasurable is forbidden because we exist within it. While we might talk about how glad we are to be liberated from Victorian sexual repression, Michel Foucault would remind us that talking ourselves out of taboos ultimately does little more than reinforce them. And if Foucault had ever made a film, it might look something like The Last Mistress.

On the eve of his marriage to the virginal heiress Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida of Fat Girl), aristocratic Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is asked to answer for his affair with the older mistress of the film’s title. Warned by her well-bred friends that she is marrying her granddaughter to a libidinous scoundrel, La Marquise de Flers (brilliantly played by Claude Sarraute), threatens to call off the wedding unless Ryno confesses. And confess he does, in the full Foucaultian sense. Kneeling at one point at the feet of the Marquise, Ryno explains that for the past ten years he had been passionately devoted to a woman he loved and hated in equal measure. The Marquise and her friends are of the age of Laclos, and therefore these respectable, aristocratic ladies feel themselves to be above the rigid morality they hold others accountable to, if only because they themselves were strategic enough to stay married to rascals. (“Ten years without being compelled by law,” they gasp, “that’s unheard of in Paris!”)

“Tell me all about those ten years,” the Marquise says to Ryno breathlessly, rising to pour herself a glass of port. She is at once his priest who absolves him of sin and the voyeur titillated by the details of his story, as though she were curled up in front of the fire with Philosophy in the Bedroom or Justine rather than with her granddaughter’s betrothed. “My dear child,” the Marquise says to Ryno, “we weren’t as narrow minded in the eighteenth-century as in this one, and I’ve remained very eighteenth-century.” The marquise speaks for Breillat as well. Whereas a nineteenth-century middle-class matron might be compelled to judge Ryno a libertine and punish him by preventing the marriage, the broad-minded eighteenth-century Marquise wants to understand, admonish, and absolve. “And now I know everything,” she says contentedly when Ryno finishes telling his tale, with a pleasure by proxy so utterly human that it seems to implicate the baser impulses behind writing, filmmaking, and storytelling itself.

The "last mistress" is Asia Argento, both in the sense that she plays the title role and in that she looms so large that to succumb to her performance is to succumb to the film itself. She is introduced lying invitingly prone on a divan, not bothering to get up to greet us, instead daring us to join her. Her performance is necessarily oversized; perhaps like Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of oilman Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, audience reaction correlates neatly with how comfortable the viewer is with the actor’s departure from presentist naturalism. Argento’s character, La Vellini, is a 36-year-old Spanish divorcée, formerly married to an elderly Englishman. She glowers at those she shares scenes with, spouting lines like “he is free,” “I owe nobody nothing,” and “I hate anything feminine, except in young men, of course.” In that era of beheadings, where a sick man drinks chicken blood to get well, Vellini jumps on the body of her beloved to lick his bloody wound from a duel (fought over her honor, of course), pushing the doctor out of the way, shouting that she wants to drink his blood and no one can stop her. Aristocratic society, peopled by the overstuffed peacocks in cafés, salons, and boxes at the opera, has no choice but to scorn her deviance for obstinately refusing to conform to its standards. And she, as the film’s real libertine, defines herself in turn against the mainstream’s hypocrisy and perversity. At a time when nobility was up for grabs, La Vellini seeks to redefine it, living above society by her own moral code, with unprecedented allowance for female sexual pleasure to a degree that seems novel and nonconformist even today.

But libertines break hearts, and Breillat has the courage to show us their pleasure as well as their pain. Ryno’s attempt to live the life of an honest family man fails not once but twice, first when his child by Vellini dies in Algeria, destroying their lives together, and later when Hermangarde miscarries in their castle by the sea, sending him racing back to Vellini in Paris. Back in Paris, La Marquise is dead, and with her died Ryno’s promise to be true to Hermangarde, freeing him to live the life of a libertine once again. Aristocratic society, embodied by the gossipy, gluttonous Comtesse d’Artelles and Vicomte de Prony, clucks with disapproval, schadenfreude, and satisfaction born of righteousness. The Comtesse, who visited Ryno and Hermangarde at their castle by the sea, claims that despite what everyone says she saw his love for Hermangarde with her own eyes and will never forget it. “At least someone will remember that love,” the Vicomte replies, “for he probably no longer does.” Love is fleeting, the film seems to say, but storytelling is forever.

Breillat describes The Last Mistress as her dearest film, explaining that it cost as much as the other ten put together. Although she was speaking of material cost, the statement seems applicable to the film’s emotional and physical cost as well. Breillat suffered a debilitating stroke one year before shooting started, and while it is tempting to attribute the film’s unique tone to the fact of her recovery, there's more to it than just a director’s inability to rely on old habits. Breillat’s life’s work has been to explore female sexuality on screen, but The Last Mistress does not fit narrowly into her existing oeuvre. Instead, this rich, layered narrative is her most complex, compelling, and confounding film to date. It’s fitting that behind all the corsets and lace of this spectacular costume drama the film’s real subject is the genesis of the taboos Breillat has spent her career methodically breaking, one by one.