À ma souer! (For My Sister, 2001) is a gritty family story about two sisters. Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004) was particularly challenging for audiences with its depictions of female perversity. Romance (1999) was originally banned in this country, but received an R rating upon appeal. It’s a mystery, then, why her latest film, Une vieille maîtresse (An Old Mistress) has received an R-rating, as it bears little in common with her earlier works.
An Old Mistress apparently marks a new point in Breillat’s career. She claims to be leaving the coming-of-age stories and sexual explorations of her earlier films behind her. Her latest film is a lavish period piece (set in 1835, and based on a novel of the same name by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly [1808-1889]) whose budget was greater than her previous ten films combined. Says Breillat:
All my previous films were judged nefarious or scandalous, but they did not represent the real me. I think this film really corresponds to my personality. I'm free at last. It represents the me that does not rise up against the world and its taboos. When I'm at peace, I'm actually terribly romantic.
Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is a notorious womaniser who has had a torrid relationship with Vellini (Asia Argento) a woman of dubious morals herself. Ryno visits Vellini to tell her their relationship is over and that he truly loves another woman, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). The Mistress in the title is Hermangarde’s grandmother and guardian, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), the woman to whom Ryno must convince of his genuine love for her charge. The film's story unfolds as he frankly divulges the details of his affair with Vellini to the Marquise.
In many respects, this is a fairly conventional period story though, as I have mentioned in previous posts, the French seem much more capable of working in this genre than their English counterparts. While the English get bogged down in staid caricatures and theatrics, the French are able to
Not unsurprisingly (for Breillat), the film depicts some nudity and sexuality, but, it’s quite passé, hardly any more risqué than Pascale Ferran’s recent Lady Chatterley, which received an M-rating. Maybe the censors (because that’s what the OFLC are) automatically assume a Breillat film is going to offend. This is unfortunate, because this is a beautiful and inoffensive film that should get the exposure that an M or MA rating would allow. The sex and nudity is a very minor aspect of the film.
Part of my respect for Breillat’s films are their ability to challenge my own sensibilities. I find it perverse that a film’s depiction of graphic sex or nudity should cause such moral outrage when violence is both ubiquitous and considered entertaining. And when one looks at a film like Tarantino’s hugely violent Death Proof (due for release on 1 November) with an
An Old Mistress will probably attract fans of Breillat’s films, and I’m intrigued to know what they think of it. I liked it a lot, though I prefer the grittiness of her more social-realist films. The film will also appeal to an audience that may have previously avoided her work. It is definitely a more accessible film, that will likely appeal to those who liked Lady Chatterley, yet it still has that little extra edge.
Personally, I’m very much looking forward to ACMI’s Focus on Catherine Breillat, which opens tonight with the premiere of An Old Mistress. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Romance, which I missed when it was released in 1999, as well as other titles such as Brève traverse (Brief Crossing, 2001), Sex is Comedy (2002), Sale comme un ange (Dirty Like an Angel, 1991), Tapage nocturne (Nocturnal Uproar, 1979) and 36 fillette (1987).
ACMI’s Focus on Catherine Breillat opens today and ends on 4 November. The screening dates are also in my
Photo: Fu'ad Ait Aattou as Ryno de Marigny and Asia Argento as Vellini in An Old Mistress