Paris, 1835. High society awaits with some trepidation the
impending marriage of Ryno de Marigny, a notorious libertine, with
Hermangarde, the unsullied daughter of the Marquis de Flers.
There are many who fear this could be the mésalliance of the
century, and with reason. For ten years, Ryno de Marigny has been
the lover of La Vellini, an unscrupulous courtesan who delights in
tormenting her admirers. How can such a hot blooded Don Juan as
De Marigny content himself with a mere girl who has yet to taste the
forbidden fruit of passion...?
Catherine Breillat is no stranger to controversy. The director
who shocked audiences with her overt portrayal of female sexuality and
outrageously lurid sex scenes in a string of films that includes Une vraie jeune fille
(1988) and Romance
(1999), Breillat pushed
the envelope so far that many regard her work as blatant
pornography. However, perhaps nothing surprised the critics
and audiences more than when this most unconventional of filmmakers
veered away from the overtly provocative and instead made Une vieille maîtresse
restrained period drama in the classical French tradition.
Arguably Breillat's best film to date, Une vieille maîtresse
much darker, far more contemplative work than we have so far seen from
this director. The passions and desires that are so apparent in
her earlier films are still there, but less visible, just as they would
have been in a more sexually repressed era. There are still
plenty of graphic sex scenes (this is, after all, Breillat's trademark)
but here the explicit eroticism serves a darker purpose, reminding us
that the sexual imperative can be a curse that has the power to
corrupt and ultimately destroy even those who had
intended to lead a virtuous and unblemished life.
In his first (and only) screen credit to date, Fu'ad Ait Aattou is a
revelation in the role of the tormented libertine Ryno de
Marigny. With realism edged with a subtle poignancy, the former male model conveys the
anguish of a Byronic young man who becomes a slave to his tempestuous carnal
passions. Here is an actor of immense talent and charisma who
clearly has a great future ahead of him. No less impressive is
the stunning Asia Argento, who plays the manipulative courtesan Vellini
with an almost sadistic feline allure - a temptress that no man can
resist, but a woman that no man would ever dare to marry.
So has Catherine Breillat turned a new page? Is this the
beginning of a new phase in her career, where the romanticism and
eroticism of her earlier films acquire a deeper significance as she
probes what lies beneath the surface of our darkest and deadliest
desires? It is too perhaps soon to tell, but if Une vieille maîtresse
anything to go by, Breillat is a director who still clearly has a great
deal to tell us.
© James Travers
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.
Other drama/romance films of the 2000s from France that are recommended viewing include: Joe Wright's Atonement
Christophe Honoré's Les Chansons d'amour
Zabou Breitman's Je l'aimais
Cédric Kahn's Les Regrets
André Téchiné's Les Témoins