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.
The Last Mistress is Asia Argento, both in the sense that she plays the title role and in that she looms so large that to succumb to her performance is to succumb to the film itself. She is introduced lying invitingly prone on a divan, not bothering to get up to greet us, instead daring us to join her. Her performance is necessarily oversized; perhaps like Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of oilman Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, audience reaction correlates neatly with how comfortable the viewer is with the actor’s departure from presentist naturalism. Argento’s character La Vellini is a 36 year-old Spanish divorcee, formerly married to an elderly Englishman. She glowers at those she shares scenes with, spouting lines like “he is free,” “I owe nobody nothing,” and “I hate anything feminine, except in young men, of course.” In that era of beheadings, where a sick man drinks chicken blood to get well, Vellini jumps on the body of her beloved to lick his bloody wound from a duel (fought over her honor, of course), pushing the doctor out of the way, shouting that she wants to drink his blood and no one can stop her. Aristocratic society, peopled by the overstuffed peacocks in cafes, salons, and boxes at the opera, has no choice but to scorn her deviance for obstinately refusing to conform to its standards. And she, as the film’s real libertine, defines herself in turn against the mainstream’s hypocrisy and perversity. At a time when nobility was up for grabs, La Vellini seeks to redefine it, living above society by her own moral code, with unprecedented allowance for female sexual pleasure to a degree that seems novel and nonconformist even today.