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Review: An Old Mistress (2007)

Director: | 104 minutes | | Actors: Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, , , Michael Lonsdale, , Jean-Philippe Tesse, , , Lio, , Léa Seydoux, Nicholas Hawtrey, Caroline Ducey , Jean-Claude Binoche, , , Eric Bouhier, , Patrick Tétu, , , , Ashley Wanninger,

Sumptuously dressed and shot costume film, based on the 1851 book by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly. That book was quite controversial at the time because of its daring content. An excellent job for the equally controversial filmmaker Catherine Breillat. With this film she shows that she has recovered sufficiently from a heavy brain haemorrhage in 2004 to make an adaptation of the novel and to film it.

The film opens and ends with a dialogue between Countess d’Artelles (Moreau) and Viscount de Prony (veteran Lonsdale), gossiping about the people around them and philosophizing about human habits and weaknesses. Central to both discussions is the libertine Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) who lives in the salons and often seduces married ladies, but actually has no money. They worry that the Marquise (Claude Sarraute) is making an unwise choice to marry her granddaughter Hermangade (Roxane Mesquita) to this scoundrel. This mainly because of his “old mistress” (see title) Vellini (Asia Argento), who they fear he cannot let go of.

For example, ‘Une vielle mistresse’ is a moral sketch of a peerage, which has little more than titles to boast about. In any case, a noble disposition is not required. It is not without reason that there is also a reference to Choderlos de Laclos, one of Napoleon’s generals, but more famous as the author of ‘Les liaisons dangereuses’.

Asia Argento (daughter of director Dario Argento) is well-cast as the fiery Vellini, a courtesan descended from an Italian princess and a famous Spanish bullfighter. Fu’ad Ait Aattou complements her well, despite his inexperience, as de Marigny. He may look a little sickly, with his pale face, sunken eyes and full lips, but that fits with the debauched lifestyle of his character. Because of his restrained playing with minimal gestures, Ait Aattou is difficult to estimate, which fits the somewhat mysterious de Marigny. Claude Sarraute also shows her best side. Initially, she runs away with her granddaughter’s future wife, but the Countess d’Artelles starts to doubt her and subjects de Marigny to a kind of interrogation. Much of the film is subsequently made up of long flashbacks in which the story of de Marigny and Vellini is reviewed. From their first meeting, where he calls her “ugly” within earshot, to a costume party and a duel with her husband Sir Reginald, an English baron, to a tragic event in Algeria. Meanwhile, the infatuated Hermangade hopes that the relationship between her fiancé and his old mistress is actually over.

Director Breillat was nominated for a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and turned the scandalous novel into a good film with subtle dialogues and a few direct sex scenes, although it never becomes as explicit as in some of her earlier films. Not as scandalous or with the complicated intrigues as the aforementioned ‘Les liaisons dangereuses’, but an excellently acted and attractive spectacle.

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