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Master Thyself

The Last Mistress tells a cautionary tale

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Autumn is not usually a time when I am inclined toward making changes in my lifestyle. The urge to "turn over a new leaf," to declare "out with the old, in with the new" is typically reserved for springtime. New life blossoming overnight quickens my instinct for personal betterment and spiritual metamorphosis. The slow deadening of leaves and shortening daylight hours of the fall, on the other hand, encourage me to hunker down, gather up supplies and prepare for the long winter ahead. Unconsciously, I cling to the previous year's decisions and habits, hoping to weather the winter without major interruption or incident, resolving to make smart changes in the new year. This week, a new film by French director Catherine Breillat reminded me that the irresponsible choices, however small, that are made in the moment have a way of becoming patterns that shape our conduct and customs in the future, becoming an ogre much harder to kill.

Adapted from the 1851 work by risque French novelist Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, The Last Mistress follows the story of the aristocratic Ryno de Marigney (newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou), who is determined to give up his libertine ways and marry the sweet and virginal Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). Barring this union is the Marquise de Flers (the charming Claude Sarraute), Hermangarde's grandmother and guardian, who demands an account of Ryno's infamous decade-long affair with the Spanish courtesan Vellini (Asia Argento in a ferocious and perhaps too modern role). He agrees to recount the details of their relationship, which begins when she is brought to Paris by her elderly English husband. Ryno is entranced by the fiery Vellini when she rebuffs his initial overtures, but she eventually relents with a capriciousness and spontaneity that defines her character. After abandoning the husband, the two retreat to Algeria, where Vellini gives birth to a daughter. When the child is killed, the grief irreparably alters the dynamics between the two, who continue to see each other, but their couplings are fueled more by desperation and regret than by tenderness or true affection.

After disclosing this story to the Marquise, Ryno feels absolved of his lurid affections for Vellini, and resolves to have a purer, less prurient relationship with Hermangarde, having cut his ties with the Spanish temptress just days before. But Vellini isn't finished with the young nobleman, and her passionate pursuit of Ryno puts his marriage in serious danger.

While The Last Mistress is set as an 18th century drawing-room drama, the feel of the film is extremely contemporary. Despite the lavish costuming, a classical score and archaic source material, Catherine Breillat has created a work that addresses modern sexual politics with about as much delicacy as a horror film. The bedroom encounters in the film become increasingly explicit and brutal as we begin to understand the depths of Vellini's nymphomania and the power she holds over Ryno. His role in their lovemaking alternates between dominance and complete passivity as he struggles to unclench himself from his habitual need to be with her. As he claims to the Marquise early on, he feels no attachment to Vellini, but seeks to recapture some of the passion that once filled his "old and worn heart," and he feels helpless to change his pattern of visiting her. Argento's performance as Vellini is strong, but so manic as to become a distraction, her character so over the top as to eventually become a caricature, rather than a believably broken woman. Director Breillat is not known for her subtle filmmaking, and her style is not necessarily suited to a period piece. While dressed appropriately for the part, the tenor and pitch of the film is decidedly present-day. Strange anachronistic touches, such as watching Vellini puff on a stogie while garbed as a fisherman, simply added to my era-disorientation.

It is hard to like a film in which the two leads are so completely warped, and where their depravity is supposed to awaken our sympathy. The tongue-clucking final dialogue describes the situation for what it is—a terrible shame. But the lesson we are supposed to learn from Ryno and Vellini's misery is clear. The choices that we make will inevitably affect our futures, and the standards of thought and living that we develop now will either hold us in good stead, or lead to some serious hurting later on. As famed 16th century poet John Dryden reminds us, "We first make our habits, and then our habits make us." Now I've got to go make a list of autumnal equinox resolutions.

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