Putting the broke in baroque

Catherine Breillat continues to wage war between the sexes

Catherine Breillat’s latest explores her usual themes of gender and sexual discord where sex and love compete with one another and love is brutally painfully fucked to death. Breillat ( Fat Girl Anatomy of Hell ) eases up on her usual bludgeoning narrative style for The Last Mistress a nasty tale of thwarted love akin to Laclos’s classic novel of betrayal and jealousy in the aristocracy Les Liaisons Dangereuses .

It’s the least sexually explicit of her films but is brimming with her poisonous dialogue and contempt for (as she sees it) the veneer of “civility” when it comes to love between the sexes. Here men are slaves to sex and women are so desperate for the trappings of marriage and intimacy that they eagerly offer themselves up for slaughter.

The film opens with Ryno (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) visiting his mistress Vellini (Asia Argento) for one last game of bedroom gymnastics before he ends their 10-year relationship. He’s engaged to the beautiful young Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) and fears his dalliances will crush her heart if she finds out.

The two move to the countryside shortly after the wedding to keep Ryno away from his usual temptations (women and gambling) back in Paris. The film then slowly unravels the tale of Ryno and Vellini’s long affair. What appeared to be a relationship of convenient sex becomes a coiled tale of love death and tragedy.

Breillat has a chorus of elderly aristocrats hovering over the couple suspicious of Ryno’s libertine ways fearful for the naive Hermangarde and expecting their marriage to fail. Meanwhile Vellini isn’t content to play the role of woman scorned and follows the newlyweds out to their country home.

Breillat shoots plainly employing the odd underwhelming visual trick (mirrored reflections and the lamest most under attended costume party in cinema history). It doesn’t really matter though — her revenge drama unfolds slowly in carriages and bedrooms with characters cloistered uncomfortably together.

The cast is fantastic— Aattou finds the right note to play the doe-eyed precocious noble both vile and charming. Argento is riveting as the growling seductive mistress with an acid tongue and a score to settle. Though it dwells on cynicism too harshly in its final act The Last Mistress is a bitter effective little drama.