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!