Their reputations precede them — Catherine Breillat, Asia Argento and their joint project, the courtesan Vellini in The Last Mistress — and always threaten to trap them, too. Breillat’s frank films (Fat Girl, Une vraie jeune fille) have long been plugged into the “provocateur” slot, with the corresponding autoresponses sometimes confirming her critiques. Argento, coming off Boarding Gate and the 2007 NYFF’s Go Go Tales, has fun being an art-house bad-girl vamp, though it’s often taken as a persona you can semi-ironically love and then leave. And with the two of them at work together, pre-perceptions for The Last Mistress would suggest costumed-desire camp in the service of didactic anti-classicism.
Then you actually watch The Last Mistress and discover a patient film of novelistic subtlety and fine-tailored construction from screenplay up through rich cinematography. In this adaptation of an early 19th century work, Argento stars as Vellini, the paramour of glam-rock-pretty Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou), vying over prerogatives of desire. But Ryno marries chaste, blonde teen-bride Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida, of Fat Girl and Sex Is Comedy), and decides there is no room for an old mistress (the literal translation of the French title). Breillat textures and slows the story through flashback and multiple frames of reference, such as Hermangarde’s grandmother (Claude Sarraute), an avid audience for Ryno’s tale of ecstasy and woe.
Argento does prove peculiarly well-cast as a character who melds performance and passion. Olivier Assayas has been quoted as admiring that she makes “no distinction between high and low art,” and Vellini, an iconoclast admired by Sarraute’s free spirit from an even earlier age, flaunts costumes that include a seaside getup recalling, of all things, Brando in The Wild One.