Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Breillat's Man, or the Old and Last Mistress

The first part of the title of this post is probably misleading; I don't mean to write about men in every Catherine Breillat film. (That kind of exercise might be a little too punishing for just one heterosexual male to undertake by himself, regardless of how sympathetic he is with feminism). For the moment (mostly given that what I've seen of her earlier work is not fresh on my mind just now) I'm only interested in her most recent film The Last Mistress (translated more accurately as The Old Mistress, and although the original title is certainly preferable, I don't think the new one lacks resonance), which I caught over the weekend. Asia Argento's performance, which is terrific, has been discussed at length elsewhere; what intrigues me more is Breillat's central male figure in this film, or more precisely the story he tells, and how it appears to be interpreted - or, more accurately, felt - by his primary interlocutor, his future wife's grandmother.

In a lot of ways he's a type. (I'm thinking all of Breillat's characters are types, and that is perhaps closely related to how she conceives human sexuality as a series of performances that throw the social strictures of any given moment into relief). The man, a libertine, Ryno de Marigny (Fu-ad Aît Aattou), plans to marry a proper, and properly innocent, woman of Paris, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida); in order to do so in full faith he must end his tortured ten-year affair with his mistress Vellini (Argento), of Spanish descent. In the most intriguing section of the film (the greater part of the second act), Ryno, in an attempt to honestly deal with his past and his difficulty in breaking off the relationship with Vellini, narrates his experience with his mistress to Hermangarde's grandmother (Claude Sarraute). In this section of the film we see violence done to the corporeal body function as a particularly graphic visual metaphor for the kind of sexual knowledge that can't quite be spoken. In a recent issue of Film Comment, Amy Taubin puts it well: "Vellini is the excess that cannot be contained by the moral order, by social discourse, by what French psychoanalytic theory terms 'the law of the father'" (29, Film Comment 44, no. 3). Juxtapose Taubin's observation with a few words on Lacan's "Real" and you've got yourself a (probably pretty formulaic) conference paper.

Although it is certainly true that the film is about the constraint on female desire in the social/symbolic realm, and the way such constraint generates violence to the body on another level, Breillat's interest is not simply in violence but in violence as it is imagined. Most of the really striking moments of violence in the film - Vellini licking blood out of Ryno's wound, Vellini slicing Ryno across the face with a dagger, the two of them making love as their daughter's corpse burns (that actually sounds more disturbing as I write it than it appeared in the film) - is that they exist in what are essentially flashbacks that feel as if they are a part of the present. Part of what is so interesting about the film's narrative structure is that these images which convey the past of Ryno's stormy relationship with Vellini exist in a kind of free-indirect space between Ryno as narrating agent and Hermangarde's grandmother as listener. Knowing that these graphic images represent what can't be spoken in Ryno's social discourse with the grandmother, but which are nonetheless graphically inscribed in the images which comprise the flashbacks that figure that discourse in the film, it is difficult to ascertain whether this violence is "how it happened," a slight projection onto the past by Ryno ("slight" since we have to assume, on some literal level, that what he's saying is true, since it links up coherently with the first and third acts), a fantasy by the grandmother or, more likely, a mingling of all of these. Ryno, for example, looks just as young in the flashbacks as he does in the present. Is Ryno projecting his thirty-year-old self into the events of the past, intensely reliving them as he tells of them? Is his grandmother fantasizing in a free-indirect fashion by imagining the Ryno she sees before her as she listens to his story? Late in this flashback sequence, after listening to a particularly passionate moment in the story, we see the grandmother lying nearly prostrate - almost sexually inviting - in her chair, listening to Ryno's story with desire that has not been entirely repressed. (Her mischievousness is only confirmed later when she pretends to be asleep while Ryno and Hermangarde are making love). I suspect for Breillat, on at least one level, The Last Mistress is an older woman's fantasy (which is what makes the original title more resonate in the end).

Of course, these questions I'm posing can't be answered; what's important for Breillat is to pose them, and she does so in a way that supports the argument of Taubin and others. This is, in some ways, a surprisingly conventional film from Breillat, one that will likely play better in American art-houses than her earlier films. The film, in the theater in Atlanta where it is playing, was only scheduled for one week; it's now booked for an additional week, suggesting to me that European cinema is most palatable when it weaves its radical gestures within an invisible, highly metaphorical style (there's something almost classical about The Last Mistress in both its construction and its stylistic economy). And although the setup and Ryno's story are the highlights of a film that gets flabby in the third act, Breillat had me in her grip throughout. I'm sure she would appreciate that metaphor, too.

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