In the midst of summer froth, here’s an opulent French bodice-ripper from writer/director Catherine Breillat, who is obsessed with gender politics, specifically female desire and sexuality.
In 1835 in Paris, the elderly Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and the middle-aged Countess d’Artelles (Yolande Moreau) dine and dither vicariously about the mischievous dalliances of their fellow aristocrats. Their juicy gossip focuses primarily on dissolute Ryno de Marigny (androgynous newcomer, Fu’ad Ait Aattou), a notorious libertine who wishes to marry young, innocent – and very wealthy – Hermangarde (Roxanne Mesquida) and must first obtain the permission of her curious grandmother, Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute)…and there’s this complication of his 10-year involvement with a voluptuous, uninhibited, capricious Spanish courtesan, Vellini (Asia Argentino), who is said to be the illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a famed Spanish matador. Consumed with jealousy, the jilted Vellini then brazenly follows de Marigny and his naïve bride on their honeymoon and, scandalously, makes no attempt to be inconspicuous.
Adapting this costume melodrama from Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel, Breillat (“Fat Girl,” “Romance,” “Sex is Comedy”) perceives post-feminist sexual politics through an angry, dark-hued lens, candidly equating passion with violence. There’s a scene where Vellini licks blood from her lover’s wound after he’s shot in a duel, murmuring “I want to drink his blood, no one can stop me!” And another in which she rakes a hairpin across de Marigny’s face, exciting him with the playful gesture. That viewpoint and the ensuing talkiness get a bit tedious. But the smoldering, uninhibited, simulated sex scenes add spice, so on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Last Mistress” is a steamy, sumptuous, sensual 7. Think of a 19th century “Fatal Attraction” in French with English subtitles.