The Last Mistress, 15

That's one way to make history our favourite subject: Catherine Breillat's latest film is part an essay on 19th century mores, part melodrama, and part outright deviant sex tale – with laughs

Costume drama at its most rakishly louche, Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress is unashamedly a bodice ripper – although in this case, it's the man's bodice that would get ripped, if he wore one. Breillat is French cinema's specialist in highbrow sexual provocation: her last film, Anatomy of Hell, featured porn star Rocco Siffredi, looking decidedly uneasy as he delivered dialogue more suited to a Lacan symposium than to the usual backroom bunk-up.

Altogether more accessible, very nearly mainstream, The Last Mistress is nevertheless a 19th-century literary adaptation that you might hesitate to show your dowager duchess grandmother. That said, the film does feature an aristocratic doyenne (impishly played by Claude Sarraute) being told a ripe old tale of adulterous heavings, and judging by the way she slouches in her chaise longue, enjoying every last lurid detail.

The film is based on an 1851 novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, roundly attacked on publication as scandalous, but warmly defended by Baudelaire. Blue-blooded Parisian virgin Hermangarde (regular Breillat ingénue Roxane Mesquida) is to marry young roué Ryno (Fu'ad Aït Aattou). Her betrothed is sincere about mending his ways, but he can't sever his connection with his long-standing mistress Vellini. She is a Spanish woman of incandescent notoriety; as an admirer puts it, "a capricious flamenca who can outstare the sun".

Vellini is played by Asia Argento, not someone you'd expect to see in this genre. She's more usually found flashing her stormy looks and copious tattoos in her dad Dario Argento's horror films or in her own features, notably the torridly self-mythologising Scarlet Diva. But she's perfect casting as Vellini, a proto-feminist pioneer and a walking rebuke to period piety. Vellini is first seen lounging in her boudoir, wearing silks and the pout invented in the 1950s by Jeanne Moreau. No wonder Ryno can't let go of a woman – she's a woman who likes to sin, like Elinor Glyn, on a tiger skin.

Asia Argento has often seemed more a lively idea rather than a fully fledged screen presence, but she's found her perfect vehicle in a role that gives free rein to her mischievous perversity and grandly eccentric swagger.

Breillat and costume designer Anaïs Romand equip Vellini with a wardrobe evoking a history of femmes fatales in painting and film: Goya's aristocrats, Manet's distracted demi-mondaines, Ingres' sleepy odalisques, and, of course, Marlene Dietrich's highly spiced if implausible Spanish vamp in Von Sternberg's The Devil Is a Woman. If Argento was never actually a star till now, she becomes one in the instant that Vellini leaves her husband with a flourish of her fingers and a curt "Adios!".

At a fancy-dress soirée, someone asks Vellini if she's come as a she-devil. "No," she spits, "the Devil. I hate anything feminine – except in young men!" No wonder she's so taken with Ryno, played with brooding suaveness by newcomer Aït Aattou, cinema's most silkily girlish male love object since Bjorn Andresen, the angelic boy in Death in Venice.

At first, Vellini receives Ryno's attentions with snarling contempt, but you know what they say about love and hate. A duel follows, attended by Vellini in jaunty boy-drag, between Ryno and her rheumy-eyed English husband. ("Reginald!" moans Ryno, "that name hurts worse than your whip!") When Ryno is wounded, Vellini's true feelings emerge, as she licks the blood from his wound. (Where do you think the word "vamp" comes from?)

The film's English title isn't strictly accurate: the French means "an old mistress". Reputedly past it, this mistress is actually 35. She's also allegedly no looker – "That ugly mutt!" is Ryno's first appraisal – but clearly Asia Argento is neither old nor ugly. She simply has a magnificently sullen insolence, shadows under her eyes suggesting she's seen a few frosty mornings (probably after nights DJ-ing in Paris Fashion Week). By casting this icon of 21st-century glamour, Breillat exposes and inverts the misogynistic, ageist, class-ridden and racist assumptions of the novel's period, but she also suggests that our own prejudices about female sexuality are perhaps not so far removed.

The Last Mistress pushes things a little further than the usual costume drama proprieties: a sex scene in front of a child's funeral pyre, and another featuring a position that I suspect wasn't widely practised in French salon society at the time. But Breillat, neither a moralist nor a sensationalist, takes her subject very seriously. She opts not for anachronism, but for cultural hindsight: The Last Mistress works brilliantly as an essay in sexual history, and as a rattling melodrama, a tale of hothouse Romanticism set in a decorous frame of moral comedy. What can one say, indeed, but ¡Ay caramba!

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker