When I saw "The Last Mistress" last October at the New York Film Festival, I began to understand what my colleagues saw in that exotic hellion Asia Argento.
The daughter of Italian giallo master Dario Argento, Asia has found her way into many critics' hearts despite being not the most glamorous chick out there. (Remember when Rolling Stone tried to capitalize on her punky Eurotrashiness by putting her on the cover? They're hoping you don't.)
And yet, "Mistress" appears to be a film that explains her bad-girl allure. After all, she's playing a woman who is not that different from her own public persona, an insatiable, commanding yet misunderstood hellcat who, even though she is not much of a looker, can still take your man. Never has an actress's mugliness been such an undeniable asset to a film.
The film is directed by Catherine Breillat, the French provocateur responsible for such disturbing, graphic, bad old times as "Romance," "Fat Girl" and "Anatomy of Hell." The most shocking thing about "Mistress" is how both women can be on their p's and q's when it comes to making a costume drama.
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Shot in a hushed, attractive tones, "Mistress" is a 19th-century period piece (based on a novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly) where Argento is Vellini, the longtime Italian courtesan to libertine rogue Ryno de Marigny (sista-lipped newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou). However, she gets relieved of her duties when he gets engaged to the virginal and aristocratic Hermangarde (Breillat regular Roxane Mesquida).
Before he walks down that aisle, he has to divulge his whole 10-year relationship with Vellini to Hermangarde's protective but understanding grandmother (Claude Sarraute), since his scandalous relationship has been chatter for many nosy members of high society.
Perhaps the most low-budget costume drama you'll ever see (good thing all those castles and buildings that were in France thousands of years ago are still around, or else "Mistress" wouldn't have had sets), "Mistress" does manage to throw several prevalent things out there. As de Marigny recalls his ups-and-downs with Vellini, we learn that it's less scandalous and more complicated and painful than people realize. You can't help but think this is Breillat laying out how the pain and suffering of those in the public eye will always be ripe fodder for gossiping folk. (All you have to do is watch that lousy "TMZ" show to recognize how sadly true that is.)
But we must not forget that, with Breillat behind the wheel, "Mistress" is more about how men will always succumb to the ways of unrestrained, unpredictable dames. And Breillat couldn't have a found a more unrestrained and unpredictable leading lady than Argento. Exhibiting more unruly mood swings than a Courtney Love interview, Argento is equal parts maddening, pitiable and even erotic.
Basically, "The Last Mistress" is a film for those who saw Argento in "Marie Antoinette" and would've preferred to see a movie about her character (also a mistress) instead of Kirsten Dunst, running around all prissy and siddity, as the queen. But it also shows what many of my friends have already figured out: that Asia Argento is one sensual, unstoppable buttaface!