Director: Catherine Breillat
By Roderick Heath
Catherine Breillat is one of the self-appointed firebrands of modern cinema, a volcanic talent with more ideas than places to put them in her films, which means some of them, like the controversial Romance (1999), fall apart from lack of sinew to hold the meat together. Her first encounter with the film world was as an extra in Last Tango in Paris. You might think some demon infesting Bertolucci’s body took up a new home in Breillat’s, except that where Bertolucci can’t shoot someone reading a phone book without making it an erotic act, Breillat can film an orgy and reduce it to a macrobiological meditation. Her Fat Girl (À ma soeur, 2001) was one of the prickliest triumphs of recent times, an utterly unsentimental look at teenage sexuality and family life. Her aesthetic contains shreds of Godard, Varda, Kubrick, Eustache, Cronenberg, Buñuel—even Wes Craven and Russ Meyer are bouncing around in that brain somewhere. Breillat’s gall is eternal, unforgiving, and far too restless to settle into mediocrity. Et voilà—An Old Mistress, an adaptation of a Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly novel set in the 1830s that’s as bold and original a period film as has ever been made. D’Aurevilly was pinioned by the guardians of his era for the immorality of the novel, and Breillat may well have gravitated to that less well-known contemporary of Dumas fils, Stendhal, and Balzac, sharing with him the status of lawless provocateur.
Monsieur Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) is a 30-year-old, penniless aristocrat, who’s just given up Vellini (Asia Argento), his mistress of the past 10 years, to marry Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), a rich young lady, with the consent of Hermangarde’s aged grandmother, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Serrault). The marquise is a grande dame of Parisian society who pines for the good old licentious days of the eighteenth century, so she’s all too willing to facilitate the marriage, as long as Marigny is utterly honest with her about his past and his connection with Vellini. Utterly respectful of sexual experience herself, but suspicious of lingering emotional attachments, the marquise works on the theory that a well-tempered rake who’s satisfied and educated himself sensually beforehand is better for her daughter’s future happiness than a rich dullard. De Flers is prodded to investigate by two friends, the Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and the Comtesse d’Artelles (Yolande Moreau), who themselves are having an affair purely through consuming rich food together; de Prony, one of Vellini’s gentleman callers, has seen Marigny visiting Vellini. De Flers makes Marigny tell her the whole sordid story.
Marigny and Vellini’s tale, recounted in the central third of the film, is one of enraged romance, bloodlust, and tragedy. Vellini, the illegitimate daughter of an Italian countess and a Spanish bullfighter, married and was enriched by an elderly Englishman, Sir Reginald (Nicholas Hawtrey). Ryno first saw her in the company of a male friend who was already set on becoming her lover, and casually insulted her appearance. She heard, and professed a powerful antipathy for him, even as he rapidly swung from such dismissal to obsessed ardour. Encountering her one day whilst riding in the Bois du Boulogne, he forces a kiss on her, is interrupted by her husband, and gives him a swat with his riding whip. A duel ensues. Ryno fires in to the air, but gets a ball in his chest in return. Vellini, tending to his wound, sucks the blood leaking from it. And away we go!
Their passion drives far into the realm of amour fou and then drifts inevitably back to the shore of compromised existence. Breillat’s style maintains a consistent tension between the messy, illogical force of passion—usually sexual passion—of the characters and her own clinical, stringently naturalist shooting style. An Old Mistress is an utterly unadorned piece of filmmaking, taking no solace either in period plush or erotic revelry. The lighting is flat, the compositions stark, the editing unhurried, and there is no music. Nature sounds are integral, from the insects swarming the air in the Bois du Boulogne to the waves of the ocean. Breillat starts pointedly with de Prony and d’Artelles eating, de Prony wryly calling gluttony the last sin of which he is capable. For Breillat, it’s all an overwhelming question of nature and appetites.
Vellini and Marigny burn each other’s flesh to the bone and replace it with something else; everything that comes after is both too painful to enjoy and too great to forget. The real climax comes halfway through, when Vellini abandons her drunkard, elderly husband, left a weeping mess on the floor, and departs with Ryno to live with him in an Algerian hut. She has a daughter by him, but loses her to a scorpion bite, of all things. For days she weeps with the corpse in her arms, until they decide to burn it, leading to a hallucinatory moment where Vellini howls to the heavens in agony, whilst copulating with Ryno by the blazing pyre, amidst the desert sands.
Breillat’s constant theme is of the inescapable nature of human desire, but also of the difficulty in stripping away the layers of lies, distortion, falsity, and power that often enfold it. Romance confronted its heroine with an ultimate truth of sex—procreation; red, red blood of birth is the capstone on that journey. Red blood of miscarriage caps that of An Old Mistress—the failure of renewal and the blind alley of amour fou. Breillat, with an alchemist’s fascination with sexuality has always been tinged with a bold feminist distrust of its manipulation, taking shots constantly at male-centred sexual mores. Her sex-riddled films have been, ironically, extremely unsexy. An Old Mistress, for all the vividness of it couplings, isn’t exactly likely to cause arousal either, but it pulses with a heady sense of its gravitational force.
The glaze of alienation caused by their tragedy finally split Vellini and Ryno. Vellini, reduced soon to being a kept woman at the leisure of twerps like de Prony, Ryno recounts indulging in an affair with a sex-hating woman, where the pleasure is entirely in getting her to surrender to him, until he’s rescued from this ennui by the prospect of marrying Hermangarde. De Flery hopes that Hermangarde will cure Ryno of sexual guilt, and that he will ease her into the world of adult sensual experience. Their marriage proves blissfully happy, indeed, for a short time, until Vellini follows them to their seaside castle abode. Vellini’s a classical femme fatale, cousin to Carmen, Nana, Hedda Gabler, and any lesbian vampire Ingrid Pitt ever played, studded with wild, ambisexual capacities—she’s also sleeping with her chambermaid, cuts her lover with a knife, drinks blood, becomes a banshee of grief, dresses as a man to watch Ryno die or triumph in his duel, and finishes as a cigar-smoking fisherman. She’s a force of nature that Ryno cannot, finally, break from, even with his comely, wealthy wife properly bedded and impregnated.
Breillat is aided in all this by Argento’s ferocious efforts in a performance her Madame du Barry presence in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette promised, but never delivered, giving Breillat the shaman of female identity she’s been looking for. No other actress to hit the big screen since Barbara Steele has possessed such a map of the darker side of female sexuality as Argento. Roxanne Melquiades, as Hermangarde, serves as she did in À ma soeur as the blonde, conventionally beautiful foil to a more complex brunette protagonist. Aattou, in his film debut, could be the prettiest male movie actor since Alain Delon, certainly enough to make it clear why all these women in the film go dotty over him. More importantly, he can make his character work—it’s harder than it seems at first glance, to embody a character often callow and self-seeking, but without endowing him with sleaze or self-satisfaction. But he can’t provide a strong enough template of masculine identity to counterbalance Argento.
Tragedy does finally ensue in An Old Mistress, but it’s what you expect—a quiet, almost offhand event that nonetheless spells the end of a kind of hope and the repetition of behaviour and history. Ryno finally abandons his wife upon realising she will maintain a stoic bourgeois affect over a loss, rather than the incantatory rage of Vellini, underlining finally why he can’t forget his “Malaguena;” she may be a monster, but she’s a very, very human monster. The film leaves these characters without, essentially, anything resolved, but with a future firmly established, as de Prony summarizes at the end. It’s the tragedy of inevitability.