This period drama charts the dilemma faced by Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou), who must decide between the aristocratic heiress Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) and the headstrong courtesan Vellini (Asia Argento).
Director Catherine Breillat is best known for such sexually explicit films as Romance and Fat Girl. Her latest, a chocolate-boxy period melodrama – based on an early 19th century novel by Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly – is relatively discreet, but it’s every bit as tempestuous. Starting in Paris in 1835, but with most of its plot concerning the previous decade, An Old Mistress plays out like a more emotional Dangerous Liaisons.
The male protagonist is Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou), a 'penniless adventurer" and alleged rake who’s about to marry young, aristocratic heiress Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). But the biggest segment of the drama consists of Ryno recalling – to Hermangarde’s broadminded grandmother – the torrid tale of his ten-year relationship with the fiery Andalusian courtesan Vellini (Asia Argento). So far, so Mills-&-Boonish. What gets us in – and staves off total cliche – is the presence and expressiveness, by turns subtle and over the top, of the two leads. Argento’s Latin looks are offset by a hint of Frida Kahlo-style androgyny, while Aattou has the cruel charismatic beauty of the very young Mick Jagger. If only scriptwriter Breillat didn’t make the characters jabber so interminably about their evolving feelings! Those feelings do admittedly encompass a full spectrum, from love to hate and all combinations thereof, and there’s a quorum of significant events. And, for all the claustrophobic self-obsession, the sumptuous settings provide welcome distraction, whether in the form of opulent opera houses, an Algerian desert, or a castle on the windswept French coast.
An Old Mistress drags occasionally; it’s wordy and narcissistic in an archetypically Gallic way, and its overwrought pitch can be tiresome. But, for all that, it’s involving enough.
While visually sumptuous, interestingly and compellingly performed by the leads, and reasonably engaging, An Old Mistress is also slow moving and overwrought, making for an uneasy film going experience.