The first time Asia Argento appears in Catherine Breillat's "The Last Mistress," she fills the frame, reclining on a couch with devilish confidence as her character, Vellini, discusses the upcoming marriage of Ryno (Fu'ad Ait Aattou), her lover of ten years, to another woman. It's an appropriate entrance for a woman who could fittingly be described as a force of nature -- a "goddess of capriciousness," as one character calls her -- someone who trembles with erotic delight as she climaxes on a tiger-skin rug, moans with unfathomable grief clutching the corpse of a loved one, and drinks blood from a man's bullet wound with carnal glee.
She is touchingly human and fiercely animal, and the actress brings her to life with captivating ferocity. Argento feels vaguely out of place in Breillat's film, a creature of the 21st century somehow transported to the 19th, but Breillat uses this incongruity to excellent effect. The illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a Spanish matador, Vellini belongs no more to July Monarchy-era France than Argento does. Her defiant nonconformity confers upon the character the status of a perennial outsider, while making the film into an uncommonly playful star text.
Despite its mercurial and provocative female protagonist, though, "The Last Mistress" finds the frequently audacious Breillat in an appealingly subdued and conventional place. Based on a novel by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, the film picks up in 1835 Paris, a few days before Ryno's marriage to Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). To convince his bride's grandmother, the marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), of the genuineness of his love, he discloses all of the details of his decade-long affair with Vellini, from its tumultuous beginning to its protracted conclusion. The marquise listens with lurid, drunken fascination. Breillat spices Ryno's recollections with a few frank sex scenes, a couple of bloody messes (one poor rooster gets his throat slit; and I, for one, wouldn't trust Asia Argento with a knife or a whip), and a loopy (or inspired?) detour to Algeria, but for the most part, "The Last Mistress" plays as a straightforward and quite lovely period drama (with excellent work from production designer Francois-Renaud Labarthe and costumer Anais Romand, who frequently outfits Argento in striking blacks, oranges, and reds) that slowly accumulates thematic resonance and emotional heft.
Breillat structures the film largely around Ryno's point-of-view, and as a consequence we tend to see Vellini as Ryno sees her. He narrates their love affair in tight close-ups and long takes, as Breillat's camera studies his porcelain skin and supple lips. Newcomer Aattou has an arresting natural beauty that contrasts well with Argento's offbeat sexy-ugly appeal, and with more screen time than anyone else in the film, Aattou brings a sly, playful sensuality and an earnest sensitivity to the role. As he recalls the scandal Vellini caused at the beginning of their relationship by leaving her husband for him, his face registers delight, regret, and wistful desire all at once.
Ryno is given the privilege of telling Vellini's story, yet she remains elusive even to him, as though even he cannot fully comprehend, still less diffuse, her intoxicating power. When Vellini first acquiesces to Ryno's advances, she warns him, "Later, you'll be my slave." It might be impossible to explain what keeps him in her thrall, but their sex scenes make the appeal somehow immediately obvious. Breillat has earned a reputation as a feminist provocateur, and though "The Last Mistress" does not aspire to the pornographic or political explicitness of a film like "Romance," Breillat subtly reveals her persistent interest in the power of sex and female sexuality. Vellini may not get a chance to narrate her own story, but Ryno is impotent -- in the figurative sense alone -- in the face of her mysterious allure.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and director of education at the Museum of the Moving Image.]