Lock up your darlings

A claustrophobic work argues that desire is a form of imprisonment

<strong>The Last Mistress (15)

No one familiar with the films of Catherine Breillat will be shocked to learn that her costume drama The Last Mistress, based on Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's 19th-century novel Une vieille maîtresse, is more of an out-of-costume drama. What is surprising, after her insufferably woolly studies of sexual power games (Romance, Sex is Comedy, Anatomy of Hell), is that the picture is a model of precision. (All the more remarkable, perhaps, as this is Breillat's first film since suffering a stroke in 2004.)

In 1830s Paris, the priapic Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) is preparing to marry the virginal Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) when her mother, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), demands to know if he has forsaken his mistress of ten years. Faced with this tricky question, he assumes a more-than-usually vacant look that says: "Please excuse me. I'm about to have an extended flashback." From here, Ryno recalls his relationship with the ravenous Vellini (Asia Argento), beginning when they first meet and he pronounces her an ugly mutt. Ah, young love.

Vellini and Ryno finding themselves seated together at dinner, she shatters his wine glass. The next day, she attacks him with her riding crop. Not the sort of woman you could take home to meet your mother, unless your mother happens to be a black belt in karate. The couple eventually share the kind of magical moment that's straight out of a book, only theirs is not so much Mills & Boon as Burke and Hare: he is half-dead, having a bullet winkled out of his chest after a duel, when she pounces on him and licks the blood from his wound. This establishes the sadomasochistic tone of their affair. Lounging with him in the garden one afternoon, she produces a letter opener and slices his cheek for no apparent reason; in my book this counts as spoiling the mood, but he takes it awfully well. After having sex, Vellini shuts Ryno in the bedroom, which he finds predictably exciting. He likes being her prisoner, he tells her. "Slave first, prisoner later," she scowls, locking the door from the outside.

Breillat has created a fittingly claustrophobic film in which to explore the idea that desire itself is a form of imprisonment. Some shots are framed as reflections in mirrors, while cramped close-ups predominate, brilliantly so in the sex scenes, which are deeply revealing despite being nowhere near as explicit as Breillat's earlier work. (A memorable mid-coital close-up squeezes together Vellini's face and Ryno's foot, as though the lovers have reached an impasse in a taxing game of Twister.) The use of flashbacks compounds the sense that the characters are boxed in by destiny, but even in the present-tense scenes no outcome other than the tragic is ever on the cards. When Ryno leaves Paris with his bride, it is clear that he is as likely to be free of Vellini, whom one onlooker says "can outstare the sun", as he is to shake off his own shadow.

Asia Argento's involvement in a film always guarantees at least a modicum of derangement. In Vellini, who communicates through sex and violence but can rarely distinguish between the two, she has found a part that fits her like a straitjacket. The pinched, scamp-like actress is unevenly matched with the vacuous newcomer Fu'ad Aït Aattou, whose two modes of expression are pouting and not pouting. The extent to which her talent outstrips his is almost humorous. He is grossly ill-equipped to register the effect on Ryno of a traumatic incident midway through the story, and the film suffers from our gradual realisation that its hero has less emotional presence than one of his attractively billowy shirts.

Despite the leading man's shortcomings, Breillat's reputation can only be improved by this exacting film. She looks increasingly like a director who needs the boundaries of genre to keep her focused. Without those moorings, her work tends to drift off into a twilight world where the characters all talk as if they've swallowed dodgy PhDs on gender terrorism. But her 2001 picture À ma soeur! delivered a radical commentary on teenage sexuality within the conventions of a coming-of-age story, and now The Last Mistress proves again that Breillat is at her most liberated when laced tightly into the corset of genre cinema.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back