Friday, July 11, 2008

More Hate Than Love

By my count, THE LAST MISTRESS is the third Asia Argento film to get a release in U.S. theaters in 2008. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not nearly enough. Still, there is at least hope in that there looks like a few other titles stacked up waiting to possibly come out at some point. For now, at least, there is THE LAST MISTRESS and appropriately for a movie starring Asia Argento, it seems to be mostly about being fascinated by Asia Argento, in whatever form that fascination may occur. Being frightened by her, being obsessed by her. Either way, it has very little interest in taking its eyes off her.

Paris, 1835: Ryno de Marigny (newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aatou) is soon to marry wealthy Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). After a “final” visit with his mistress, the notorious Madame Vellini (Argento), the somewhat older, “illegitimate daughter of an Italian countess and a Spanish bullfighter” where he tells her they can never see her again, de Marigny is summoned by Hermangarde’s grandmother who insists on discussing the young man’s decade-long affair before she will give her blessing. Knowing what has been going on, she demands total honesty.

Shot and framed in a staid fashion, almost as if some of the compositions are derived from paintings, the passion in THE LAST MISTRESS comes not from its visuals—the colors are actually surprisingly flat at times. Instead, that passion comes from the animal-like ferocity of its female lead. At first de Marigny refers to Vellini as an “ugly mutt”. The ugly part is a reach, but there is something immediately unusual and well, maybe a little mutt-like, about her look and the age difference is apparent. He then realizes he has spoken with her nearby and when he sees the look of raw hatred she gives which resembles a look of a ferocity which might not be possible coming from anyone else on the planet…well, that’s it. There’s no going back. It’s a film about how there is no going back. And as it moves from that hate to a passion of another kind, which goes beyond calling it love or even simple lust, at one point involving the literal sucking of blood, it’s hard to imagine anyone else on the planet playing this role. “I hate anything feminine, except men,” she mentions at one point and this woman who smokes cigars and dares you to return her devastating gaze really is the male of the relationship, driving the desires of the more feminine Aattou. He’s boring, but even that seems appropriate. Anyone would be boring next to her anyway. The performances by Argento in this film and also in BOARDING GATE from a few months ago is the type of work usually frowned upon—they’re not about realism, they’re not about histrionics, they’re about the primal force she brings to them, which is purely sexual and purely cinematic. There’s no other actress these days who does that to such an extent.

The frankness of its sexuality, even down to how the older characters acknowledge it, set it apart from what you would expect from such a film, making it more honest than the typical ‘unrequited love’ path these sort of period pieces usually go down. That makes the time it is set in almost incidental, refreshingly so. And it correctly admits to the near-impossibility of these feelings ever reaching some form of closure. The other day I was driving through Silverlake and saw a certain someone I knew sitting at a café, laughing at something that was being said. It was one of those moments where all time seemed to stop and the only thing that meant anything in the universe was seeing her there. Even now, I can see how she looked as she was laughing. She didn’t know I was driving past. She didn’t know what I was thinking just then. She doesn’t know I’m writing this now. And there’s nothing I can do about that. There’s an unresolved element to the end of THE LAST MISTRESS which seems slightly unsatisfying. From experience, that seems entirely appropriate.


Ed Howard said...

Nice writeup, I quite liked this too. Argento's raw performance really makes this film -- she seems to have come from a wholly different world than all the staid, polite people otherwise populating this city.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Nice to see someone else liked it. She's pretty amazing and it's tough to imagine anyone else who could come from that diferent world and inhabit the role the way she does.