The Last Mistress

(Catherine Breillat, 2007) I have a weakness for costume dramas, but I’m also an insufferable stickler, turning my nose up at nearly every one I watch. Though I deal in history professionally, it’s not factual accuracy I seek in these period representations; it’s a skin and a soul — a sense of time as memory rather than text. Few costume dramas make my (insufferable) grade, but I trusted that Catherine Breillat would deliver something that breathed, and she did. The Last Mistress is as real as a toothache, brought to life by Asia Argento’s earthy angst, which has never until now been properly harnessed. An actor who (like her character) fascinates and repels in equal measures, Argento is indispensable to the role of La Vellini, a Spanish flounce whose ten-year affair with a young nobleman (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) upsets the status quo and unsettles the lovers themselves. It would be easy to wax ecstatic about the film’s Napoleonic production design and smoldering crotch, but space is limited and due ought to be given to its performances and to the tension of its joy/grief confusion, which lingers from end to end. Breillat’s costume gem looks messy but it’s disheveled by design — just bruised enough so that it feels like a mouth kissed a little too rough. — Ranylt Richildis

(Originally published as part of In Review Online’s The 100 Best Films of the Decade feature, in February 2010.)

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