Catherine Breillat is a director fascinated with the intricacies of desire. This does not, however, mean that her work is altogether sexy. Rather, the celebrated French director's esteemed canon - highlighted by 1999's graphic Romance and 2001's stunning Fat Girl - is cerebral even when steamily carnal, her films intellectual exercises that arouse the head as much as the nether regions. Her latest, The Last Mistress, is by and large no different. Based on Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's taboo 1851 novel, it's a period piece revisitation of her interest in the ambiguous motivations of, and feelings born from, romance, here delivered not with her usual shocking transgressiveness but, instead, with the refinement, grace and sensuousness of a charged costume drama. This 19th-century setting results, on the one hand, in something of a startling change of pace for Breillat, whose cinema has long been infused with a decidedly modern strain of provocation. And yet on the other hand, her preoccupation with love's thorny complications feels right at home in the drawing rooms and boudoirs of indolent 1835 Parisian aristocrats, whose public civility masks private conduct of a much more lascivious sort.
em>The Last Mistress is bookended by scenes of two nosy, gluttonous members of the gentry (Michael Lonsdale and Yolande Moreau) attempting to concoct a scheme to save pure-as-snow Hermangarde (Fat Girl's Roxane Mesquida) from a doomed marriage to Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou), a womanizer with a scandalous reputation. The apex of Ryno's misconduct revolves around his ten-year affair with Vellini (Asia Argento), a wild, dangerous "goddess of capriciousness" whose brazenly independent conduct is frowned upon by high society. A libertine attempting to go good, Ryno visits Vellini to tell her that they're through because he plans to marry and remain faithful to prudish Hermangarde, though their contentious meeting unavoidably leads to sex on a tiger-skin rug (the animalistic Vellini's screaming face next to that of the dead animal's). In this opening, Breillat lays out her view of both love and desire as something akin to a compulsion, an affliction neither chosen nor fully controllable. It's an attitude reaffirmed by the ensuing saga, much of which concerns Ryno recounting the details of his and Vellini's relationship to Hermangarde's understanding grandmother, La Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute).

A dandy libertine, Ryno is, from their first encounter, instinctively drawn to Vellini, the offspring of an Italian princess and Spanish matador who's betrothed to a jealous elderly gentleman. Staring with psychotic intensity at Ryno from a coach as she lewdly licks an ice cream cone, Vellini is the masculine counterpoint to the feminine Ryno, a blurring of sexual identities that becomes more pronounced once their feelings for one another begin to flower. Their tumultuous affair involves a duel, slashed faces, the birth and death of a daughter in Algeria, and an overriding air of erotic violence that sticks to them like a shroud. Entangled by both love and hate, Ryno and Vellini struggle to remain separate and sane after Ryno's betrothal, and Breillat, as is her wont, depicts their consuming yet stymied passion with detachment. It's an approach that deliberately frustrates palpable heat, though the analytic remove from which Breillat investigates the iron grip and multifaceted ramifications of carnal cravings is less troublesome than The Last Mistress' somewhat predictable narrative about Ryno's attempts to shake his irrepressible amorous impulses.

If Breillat's story never quite generates sweaty ardor nor much in the way of novelty, it nonetheless has a twisted spirit, due mainly to the performance of its leading lady. Argento's strong suit has always been her sexually ferocious comportment and mischievous eyes, and here, her extreme, unruly manner is utilized to blistering effect, in large part because the tale's period setting requires that it be constrained by sophisticated decorum. Social restraints are the only apparent barriers between Vellini's urges and actions, and The Last Mistress' fervent energy is derived from its titular mistress' explode-at-any-second volatility, which lends the somewhat mundane material an electric charge and helps make up for the blandly androgynous turn by Aattou. No surprise, then, that the film's most gratifying moments are those in which Vellini erupts in mad behavior, from the deliriousness of her licking and sucking Ryno's near-fatal bullet wound near his heart (a potent image of vampiric love) to a bout of wailing, tormented, out-and-out crazed coitus in the Algerian desert next to her child's blazing funeral pyre.

For another take, see Jeff's review from the San Francisco International Film Fest.