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An Old Mistress

Year: 2007
Production Co: Flach Films
Director: Catherine Breillat
Writer: Catherine Breillat
Cast: Asia Argento
In a strange way, a Mills & Boon-inspired bodice ripper set in 18th century France is the perfect vehicle for filmmaker Catherine Breillat. Even more obsessed with sex than other French directors, you might now her work from the films Romance (1999) and Anatomy of Hell (2004). Both contained explicit, full frontal sexual activity and the latter even starred the Italian porn actor Rocco Sifredi.

The bosoms heaving over corsets, longing glances over delicate lace fans and horse drawn carriages of 1800s Paris would seem unbearably chaste to a director of her visual sensibility, but she makes this fable of love on the wrong side of the tracks her own.

She does so by employing the liberal doses of nudity and lovemaking of her other films, but also by taking the inherent sexual tension of the (literary) romance genre and turning the needle up to eleven. She does so with a beautiful cast. First is Aattou as the young rake Ryno, whose almost feminine beauty suits the feminist aesthetic in everything from the costume design to the Shakespearian dialogue.

But stealing every scene is Asia Argento (daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario) as Spanish courtesan Vellini, a figure of evil temptation and unbridled lasciviousness bordering on the biblical with her dark eyes, phallic pursuits of carrying a knife and smoking cigars and her commanding sexuality. Argento exudes the erotic tension of a thousand racy romance novels.

Ryno is about to marry the pretty and chaste young Hermangarde, but Hermangarde's grandmother and her society friends are concerned about Ryno's scandalous relationship with the fiery Spanish lady, the worst kept secret in Paris.

Half the film is told in flashback as Ryno regales the old woman with the tale of Vellini in his life. On meeting her he became so besotted by her charms he pursued her relentlessly despite her being married. Even when shot and critically injured in a duel to settle the matter he moves into her house to convalesce and there she gives in to him, leaving her husband and embarking on a torrid affair with him.

Despite her passion, Vellini becomes increasingly unhinged, particularly after the accidental death of the child the two have together. While Ryno knows she'll consume him and breaks up the relationship, he can't stop himself from visiting to enjoy her charms the course of the next ten years.

The nuptials are held and the newlyweds move to a coastal outpost to start their lives, only to discover Vellini doesn't intend to let the object of her desires go and has moved nearby. Before long, Ryno's back to his old bad habits.

There's little real resolution to the story except for a final coda of the two society types who opened the film discussing the ongoing scandal and how it's moved back to Paris with Ryno and his wife after relocating. Breillat seems concerned only with the lack of control we have over sexual attraction, and how sometimes life arouses the right passions for the wrong person.

The going is slow but the tale is sumptuous and for once, Breillat isn't out simply to shock.

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