(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2008)
This is Catherine Breillat from the 2004 film festival program book: “There are, every time, only two possibilities. Either we talk about it, try to understand, and abolish; or we respect and live in absolute denial…” This presumably explains something about Breillat’s rigorous (detractors would say obsessive and morbid) preoccupation with female sexuality, but of course cannot explain all of it – we’re defined by the choices we make, and the time we spend on one battleground means that we decline the battles elsewhere. And the clearly declining cachet of Breillat’s work (not to mention the subject’s intractable nature) entails that the warrior gradually appears more neurotic than brave. Having said all that, I like her films much more than not – her clinical interest in the mechanics of sexual politics regularly generates shockingly memorable sequences.
The Last Mistress
Her previous film Anatomy of Hell, even so, didn't break much new ground, and shortly afterwards she suffered a stroke. She made her latest, Une vieille maitresse (released here as The Last Mistress) after recovering, but reportedly suffered another stroke since then. Unusually for her, it’s a costume drama, set among the French aristocracy, where Ryno de Marigny, a young man with a reputation as a libertine, is engaged to be married. To set her grandmother’s mind at ease, he tells her everything about his mistress of ten years, a headstrong Spaniard, Vellini; he admits their mutual obsession, but assures her it’s now over, and the marriage proceeds.
Blood was a prominent motif in Anatomy of Hell – although there it was specifically menstrual blood, rendering the film often more medical than erotic. The only true path, it posited, is to embrace what’s disgusting in womanhood. She asks if she should have shaved her armpits; he says there would be no point, for the skin would still be as bumpy and repellent, like a frog (“except that at least frogs have the decency to be green”). “The lie about the softness of women,” he says, “is hateful.”
Asia Argento’s recent career might be devoted to obliterating that hateful lie, and she’s perfectly cast as Vellini. At times she seems to dial up the patented Kubrick stare from A Clockwork Orange and other films – making herself strange, unknowable, frightening, mesmerizing. De Marigny at first sight calls Vellini “an ugly mutt” (no one defies the categories of beauty and ugliness like Argento) which she overhears – the more she hates him, the more he pursues her. In an early costume ball she says she’s dressed as “the Devil himself,” and her Spanish “otherness” is flamboyantly coded through clothing that looks like a fetishistic message board compared to the stiffness of the prevailing female dress.
De Marigny’s persistence leads to a duel with her elderly husband; he’s shot but survives, and as the doctor treats his wound she enters the room to lick up his blood – which the doctor disgustedly says will prolong his infection. The next scene starts with an apparently unsimulated scene of a chicken being cut by the throat (it ain’t always subtle). The tone of their relationship is set - the evocation of vampirism sums up the interplay of submission and possession. A similar dynamic will recur throughout the film.
It makes for a gripping, fascinating story. The film’s historical recreation appears attentive enough, but precise fidelity never seems like Breillat’s primary concern (several reviewers pointed out how the very modern tattoo on Argento’s back is visible in at least one scene). On the Chicago Reader blog, Pat Graham pointed out the general resemblance to Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais, which played here a few months ago, and put it this way: “Whatever her merits as historian, Breillat's micromanaged attraction to the vagaries of human passion invites a complicity that Rivette, more austere and abstract, isn't inclined to give. On the other hand, Duchess fascinates out of sheer obliquity, its terse, alienating distance—everything less predictable since less familiar, a matter of epistemological cunning rather than identification strategies unleashed. Yet despite its raw immediacy, it's the Breillat that arguably wears you down and out.” (I know – Graham’s writing always has that “huh?” aspect to it).
Rivette is one of my very favourite directors, but I wrote here that Duchess struck me as “second-tier Rivette,” lacking the classic elements of his “unique cinematic universe.” I haven’t yet seen the film for a second time, but I’m fairly sure that when I do, I’ll start to see my reaction was constrained by preconceptions. The apparent new direction of Une vieille maitresse, conversely, had me approaching the film with a quite open mind, but in the end it certainly feels like watching a Breillat picture – which, as I say, is just fine with me.
It follows that there could never be a tidy ending to this battle. If de Marigny and Vellini don’t literally obliterate each other, the film almost metaphorically presents it that way, letting someone else have the last word on them. Society can accommodate – indeed, could hardly function without – scandals and transgressions; what it ultimately means to the participants though, we can only guess. By leaving the possibilities somewhat open, Breillat provides what might actually be, by her fearful standards, an upbeat happy ending.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, is an interesting enough documentary on the legendary journalist, who killed himself a few years ago. I’ve never read much of Thompson, and can’t decide after the movie whether I want to make the effort – one commentator describes his reporting as a blend of scrupulous accuracy and complete fantasy. The movie gives us snippets - read by Johnny Depp (who played Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) – but spends more time on anecdotage, often very diverting. On the other hand, if the portrait of Thompson is as unimaginative as the soundtrack musical collection, then we’re not unearthing much at all. Director Alex Gibney did a great job (and won an Oscar) on setting out some Bush administration outrages in Taxi From The Dark Side, and seems to have taken on the Thompson project specifically as a lighter contrast, which may not have been for the greater good.
The movie doesn’t try to analyze his legacy, beyond a few token judgments that we could use Thompson nowadays (cue picture of George W); my best guess is he provided some genuine inspiration, but on the other hand his open fixations for or against various individuals, and his increasing immersion in his own distinctive persona, might establish him as a fairly clear forerunner of today’s bloated celebrity opinionators. But Gibney’s film doesn’t come close to providing clarity on that.