There is a moment in The Last Mistress when the Comtesse d’Artelles (Yolande Moreau), after having played her part in mitigating the scandal surrounding the dashing, but inscrutable rogue, Ryno de Marigny’s (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) unresolved romantic entanglement with his long term mistress – and, consequently, enabling his marriage to the Marquise’s granddaughter and heir, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) – contently looks out of the window of the Marquise de Flers’s (Claude Sarraute) seaside estate and observes, “How the sea rises!” It is a line taken directly from the text of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s titular novel that, delivered by veteran actress Moreau, becomes a double entendre reference to her own directorial debut feature, When the Sea Rises…. In a way, Catherine Breillat’s infusion of subtle humor in the film reflects a certain accessible, newfound sensibility to her cinema. Using the metaphor of the brewing sea as a portent for the reappearance of Ryno’s former mistress, a Spanish enchantress named La Vellini (Asia Argento) into his life following his marriage (an image that is incisively reinforced by Hermangarde’s discovery of La Vellini, dressed in a fisherman’s clothes and smoking a cigar) – Breillat diverges from the (explicitly) transgressive elements that have come to define her cinema towards a more implicit and refined, yet still sensual, atmospheric, and deeply romantic tale of fidelity, passion, and obsession. Ostensibly a tale of the penniless Ryno’s attempts to win Hermangarde’s hand in marriage by convincing the Marquise that his reputation as a reckless womanizer is behind him, the film proceeds in extended flashback as the sprightly Marquise conducts a thorough inquisition, not of his sexual exploits, but of his more problematic history of having conducted a ten year affair (which, as the Marquise appropriately points out, is essentially a marriage) with La Vellini. Framing La Vellini and Ryno’s tumultuous relationship within the context of Breillat’s recurring explorations on sexual ambiguity (most notably, in Romance and Fat Girl), the androgyny inherent in La Vellini’s aggressiveness and Ryno’s sensitivity become a reflection, not only of their inherent narcissism as dandyist provocateurs seeking to ingratiate themselves into aristocracy, but also their emotional interdependence and mutual obsession.
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