After years of lascivious experiments and audience-bludgeoning anti-romances, French provocateur Catherine Breillat pulls an unexpectedly engrossing and lurid film out of Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's 19th-century novel Un Vieille Maitresse, the tale of a French dandy and the 36-year-old "Old Mistress" whom he attempts to do away with before he marries the daughter of famed nobility. Breillat's latest presents not only one of the great performances of this year and the director's most accessible work to date, but also introduces a character of true lustful ferocity unlike few before: a venomous madame who makes Anne Boleyn look like Anne of Green Gables.
Her name is Vellini (Asia Argento). It's rumored she's the flamboyant progeny of an Italian priestess and a Spanish matador. She licks fresh blood off of gaping wounds. The ringlets of her hair resemble a heart turned on its head. It's said she can outstare the sun and the second you get your first glimpse at Argento laying on her canapé, you believe it sans aucun doute. Though he first casts her off as an "ugly mutt," the young playboy Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) takes it as his task to possess this creature despite her blatant loathing of him. Eventually they exile themselves to Argentina and bear a daughter, only to see her die from the sting of a scorpion. Unchained and thrown into an abyss of grief, Argento's bellowing growl of despair could shred the very screen.
Breillat burrows deep into a would-be costume drama to find an erotic depth-charge and a twisted, hostile power play in the name not of romance but of pure desire. Following their Argentine days, the couple cops to a mutual lack of love, only to continue on as man and mistress. The film is partially framed by Ryno's confession of the long affair to La Marquise de Flers (Claude Serraute). It's no coincidence that La Marquise happens to be the grandmother of Hermangarde (Breillat staple Roxane Mesquida), Ryno's betrothed. Two gadflies (the superb Michael Lonsdale and Yolande Moreau) buzz around, witnessing the passive cruelty of a relationship left passionless.
But even as a young altar boy talks of woman made in the image of man, Ryno and Vellini continue to joust each other, their affray apparently unquenchable. Breillat's charge is not in some dark love but in an addiction to insatiable wanting. A plea of adoration is a complete turn-off; an engagement to another acts as Spanish Fly. As Hermangarde and Ryno leave Paris for the seaside, Vellini follows them but only to know that given her permission, her will, that Ryno would still want her instead. In the end, he co-opts her as his therapist; it borders on pathetic.
It would be redundant to talk of Argento's bestial eyes, her unencumbered sexuality and that voice that would send most men back to their mothers like a hermit crab retreating to its shell. Though her gaze is essential to it, the performance truly awakens in her whispered taunts and in her fearless movement. The quick, near-graceful extension of her arm when she grabs a glass from Ryno and it shatters in her hand, her gentle probing of Ryno about his lovers while they are still engaged in a tryst of their own: Argento doesn't perform these acts so much as she culls them from a natural experience, something laid dormant in her memory until that very moment. Every move is authentic and Argento executes it like she's been through all of this in some other life (or perhaps even this one).
Breillat has often indulged in mussing sexual identities; In Mistress, she blurs the lines further. As Vellini takes long drags off her cigar, Ryno stares off in starstruck lovedream. As Vellini's elderly husband insists on decorum at a duel, the mistress wants only blood and vindication. Before Ryno and the grandmother begin their discussion, Breillat cuts to a high-angle of Hermangarde looking at Ryno. The joke is that he might as well be looking at a mirror.
Aka Une vieille maîtresse.
That's tiger love.