Cool, carnal, and lethal, "The Last Mistress" is a period drama with a difference. Almost more perverse than any of the discreetly graphic couplings onscreen is the film's near-total avoidance of wide shots. Normally, directors love to show off their costumes and carriages, the sumptuous decor the budget has made possible, with expansive camera angles. This movie, by contrast, plays it close, as though witnessing the final moments of a long and agonized bullfight. "The matador's daughter," says one character, "wants blood."
The matador's daughter in question is Vellini (Asia Argento), a wanton Spanish flamenca who disturbs the politesse of 1835 Parisian society. The phrase could just as easily refer to Catherine Breillat, the French writer-director whose earlier movies ("Fat Girl," "Sex Is Comedy") dissect women's roles in film and in life with academic provocation. Breillat can be on-target or she can be unbearably pretentious ("Anatomy of Hell"); here, she's masterful to a fault.
Her wild card, in all senses, is Argento, the brainy art-house actress and filmmaker ("Scarlet Diva") who singlehandedly raises the film's pulse rate above standing. For 10 years, Vellini has been the mistress of the young aristocratic rake Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou); now he's marrying a rich young virgin (Roxane Mesquida) and Vellini's services are no longer required. She's 36 - "a good age to make way for another" in the words of an aging observer (Michael Lonsdale) - but she does not intend to go quietly.
"The Last Mistress" is about social gamesmanship and those who break its rules; it's also about the roles even free-spirited women are forced to play in a corseted society. The men, of course, get to run free, and the question of whether Marigny is his mistress's victim or victimizer is left tantalizingly unresolved. Aattou is a soft, feminine presence with hard eyes and Mick Jagger lips; Vellini, by contrast, adopts masculine clothes and attitudes. Yet she tells him "I was only happy when you detested me," and you wonder: Who's manipulating whom?
The film is based on a story by the controversial 19th-century French writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly and, as an opening title informs us, takes place "in the age of Choderlos de Laclos," author of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." Don't go, though, if you're expecting a cruelly randy romp like 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons," since "Mistress" is a more intellectual affair. It's a date movie only if you're both up on your Foucault.
Breillat creates shots that are tight, glittering tableaux, with the characters hemmed in by furniture, bric-a-brac, and their own costumes. (The director has spoken of her admiration for Josef von Sternberg's work with Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, and you can see where she's going with the comparison). Hardly anyone is able to move in this glass prison, which makes Vellini's struggle to stand out (forget about fitting in) all the more startling.
It's a period piece, so there are the expected duels and costume balls (Vellini shows up in her street clothes and says she's disguised as the Devil). There are icy bon mots, such as when the rake says, "If faithful husbands only knew how unhappy we are when their wives yield to us." There are sex scenes as well, but they're studied and joyless; sex in this world is about conquest and social position, not pleasure.
"The Last Mistress" itself is so studied and joyless that didacticism peeks through well before the end. Yet Argento brings a sharp note of modernity to the film without breaking its spell; when she licks an ice cream cone, it's as imperious a come-hither gesture as you can imagine. Her Vellini is a capricious and sensual creature, splendidly indolent, but you sense the mind in there beating its wings against the bars. In a later century, the character might be, I don't know, a well-known movie actress and director, the mistress of her own destiny. Having seen Breillat's other movies, though, I'm not sure that would be an improvement.