Catherine Breillat hitches her wagon to the hottest of European stars, Asia Argento, in a highly entertaining adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's mid-19th-century novel Une vieille maîtresse—once notorious for its treatment of a young libertine's erotic obsession with a homely 36-year-old woman. Breillat's movie opens in 1835, as a pair of self-satisfied aristos discuss the impending wedding of impoverished party boy Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) to the well-born, chaste, and rich Hermangarde de Polmaron (Roxane Mesquida). Ryno is marrying Hermangarde for her money, while, innocent of his lengthy involvement with the notorious courtesan Vellini (Argento), she is marrying him for love. The illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a Spanish matador, Vellini is introduced in perpendicular close-up sprawled on her divan. Argento may fit no one's notion of ugly, but Breillat uses the actress' frank gaze and virtuoso carnality as a means of disrupting the inherently genteel material. Having made her reputation as a sexual provocatrix, Breillat here tweaks the bourgeois from another perspective—namely that of the aristocracy. Breillat also turns a particular sexual equation on its head, making her outlaw couple strikingly androgynous. Vellini puffs on a cigar; Ryno bats his eyes. Which one is the femme fatale? Desire knows no boundaries: In the end, she pursues him so that he will pursue her.
Argento brings history to life.
Opens at Guild 45, Fri., July 18. Not rated. 114 minutes.