Provocative French filmmaker Catherine Breillat (Sex Is Comedy, Anatomy of Hell) sexes up the eighteenth century costume drama in The Last Mistress, a lush and lavish love triangle that has Asia Argento at its tip. The sultry actress plays Spanish courtesan Vellini who casts a deadly spell over Paris and tempts penniless rake Ryno (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) from his fiancee Hermangarde (the ever radiant Roxane Mesquida). Full of gilded dialogue, opulent costumes and some philosophical musings about the nature of desire, it's an arthouse treat.
Delayed by Breillat's stroke in 2004, The Last Mistress was apparently a very troubled production (star Asia Argento almost died during shooting, of peritonitis). It's also a remarkable change of setting for the filmmaker, who reigns in her usual taboo-shattering explicitness in favour of something more conventionally romantic. Even still this is a costume drama with plenty of raunchy, costume-less scenes, the three leads hopping in and out of their bodices and frock coats with destructively wild abandon. Carefully composing the drama (loosely based on Jules-Amedee Barbey d'Aurevilly's controversial 1851 novel), Breillat pits Argento's dusky, cigar-chomping harlot against Mesquida's porcelain-skinned virgin, putting sexual magnetism in conflict with uptight aristocracy.
"A TRULY DANGEROUS LIAISON"
A lengthy flashback sequence explains the history behind the relationships, Aattou's fulsomely-lipped libertine brought to his knees by the manipulative, alluring femme fatale who offers him passion as well as love. Like all Breillat's films it's obsessed with sex, power and gender, its protagonists reduced to tragedy as they desperately wield their weapons of seduction. Brimming over with scandal and intrigue, it's a truly dangerous liaison that strips its cast and their passions bare. At least one moment burns into the memory: a torrid sex scene in the North African desert that captures the painfully desperate emotions propelling these characters to their respective fates.
The Last Mistress is out in the UK on 11 April 2008.