Synopsis: Based on the novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, Une vieille maîtresse tells the story of a 30-year-old libertine called Ryno de Marigny (Aattou) who is set to marry the beautiful and pure aristocratic child Hermangarde (Mesquida). Before marrying her, Ryno tells her curious grandmother the Marquise de Flers (French entertainment journalist Claude Sarraute) how he has been under the spell of La Vellini (Argento), an Andalusian courtesan, for ten years but that he has put a stop to it on the night before arriving at the marquise.
I’m a moderate fan of filmmaker Catehrine Breillat: while I quite liked ‘À ma soeur’ and ‘Sex is Comedy’, I wasn’t as fond of ’36 fillette’. Still, I was hopeful when I discovered that she did a sexy period piece – in her hands, I was hoping for something similar to Stephen Frears’ ‘Dangerous Liaisons’.
Well, it turns out that I was pretty disappointed with the end result.
The acting was good, but none of the performances came even remotely close to being memorable – everyone seems to be on “automatic”, and some were terribly bland or vacant. The story wasn’t really interesting either: it was nothing more than the story of a man trying to wed into a well-off family, all the while trying to deal with his lingering feelings for an old flame. Déjà vu.
The direction was a bit off, too, sadly enough: some of the editing choices were not only poor, but sometimes incredibly jarring. As well, some of the framing and composition sometimes made me think that it was a low-budget film from the ‘70s; it was a little off-putting.
And, while I have no doubt that it was a low-budget production and that they did the best they could with what they had, there is no excuse for the uninspired writing and the lack of heat on-screen – this was, after all, supposed to be a movie filled with passion. Well, either the actors were miscast, or they were improperly directed – because one could not feel any of the emotions that should have been drowning the scenes. Nothing.
What has always been interesting in Breillat’s work has been her exploration of the various roles of women. In previous films, she has always given at least one female character a vital role and she has never balked at making her unlikeable, yet so perfectly defined as to make her intriguing. She doesn’t create cookie-cutter dolls – and frequently breaks boundaries, even if it’s in subtle ways.
It is the case here as well. In ‘Une vieille maitresse’, she wrote a terrific part for Asia Argento: that of a semi-detached lover who is incapable of letting go of her decade-long paramour. What distinguishes the character is that, despite the expectations of that era’s “polite society”, the woman is generally graceless, crass and unsympathetic – something very rare in a lead role.
And that’s partly where some of my concerns come forth: this character should have had some form of animal magnetism that transcended her outwardly-unappealing nature, but there was none of this to be found – Asia Argento provided her alter ego with no life and, thus, no clear explanation as to why she should be as fascinating as she is purported to be.
Again… bad casting? Or bad directing? Either way, this movie, irrespective of its immense potential, left me extremely cold.