Catherine Breillat, The Last Mistress
Hated and loved in equal measure, Catherine Breillat is a filmmaker who could never be accused of being boring. The French writer director seems courting controversy since the beginning of her career: she was a literary sensation at the age of 17 when she published her first novel, L’homme Facile which was sufficiently racy to be forbidden reading for minors and her first cinematic involvement was acting in Bernardo Bertolucci’s sordid classic Last Tango in Paris (1972). She made her directorial debut in 1976 with an adaptation of her own novel Une Vrai Jeune Fille, but her portrait of adolescent female sexuality was considered pornographic and would not be released until 1999. While writing further bestselling novels as well as screenplays for Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On, Maurice Pialat’s Police and even the soft-core porn classic Bilitis, she tried to continue her directing career but struggled until the international success of 36 Fillette (1988), about the sexual awakening of a 14-year-old girl. Charges that her films were more pornography than art were fueled by her casting Euro porn legend Rocco Siffredi in Romance (1999) and Anatomy of Hell (2004), however both those films were critically acclaimed and, along with her 2000 success Fat Girl!, helped further raise her profile.
In 2004, Breillat suffered a stroke and was confined to a hospital bed for five months, but remarkably a year to the day after the stroke, she began shooting her latest film, The Last Mistress. Based on a novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, the film is a period piece and thus a significant departure for Breillat whose previous work has all been deeply grounded in modernity. The story is nevertheless as erotically charged as ever: aristocratic Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) marries the rich, devoted Hermangarde (Roxanne Mesquida) but is lured into infidelity by La Vellini (Asia Argento), the earthy courtesan whose primal desires match his own. The Last Mistress has all the trappings of a period piece – lavish costumes, elaborate sets, etc. – but Breillat makes the material her own by transforming Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 19th century novel into a vital and highly sexual noir. Breillat gets brave performances from her two ill-fated lovers, Aattou and Argento, and the stylistic grandeur perfectly offsets the emotional intensity of the film, which is Breillat’s most exciting so far if not also her best.
Filmmaker spoke to Breillat at last year’s New York Film Festival about her love of sex and violence, her romantic side, and the importance of being hated.
Filmmaker: How are you?
Breillat: For me, to be in New York and have a film at the New York Film Festival is fantastic because the first time [I was at the festival] with 36 Fillette, I was hated in France. It did so well here that it allowed me to make another film because they discovered that I wasn’t the worst filmmaker in French cinema. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about The Last Mistress. How long ago did you first read the novel?
Breillat: Since I wanted to adapt it right away, it must have been 10 or 15 years ago. In fact, right after Perfect Love.
Filmmaker: And what was your initial reaction to the book?
Breillat: It’s like it is with my actors – [I felt] that it belonged to me.
Filmmaker: Did you have a very clear vision of how you wanted the film to be?
Breillat: No, I never have a clear vision in advance. You start the film and it makes itself on its own at a certain point. Now in France they all want to call us “réalisateur” [French for “director”], but I always say that I only “realize” the film after I’ve made it. I only know what movie I have made afterwards. [laughs] A “réalisateur” is like a mason, and I’m an architect.
Filmmaker: How difficult was it physically, after your stroke, to make this film?
Breillat: The only difference was the insurance companies – nobody would insure me. I have a producer [who insured me]. I don’t think any [other] producer in the world would have produced a film like this under those circumstances.
Filmmaker: This cost 10 times as much as any of your previous films so did you feel a lot of pressure because of that?
Breillat: No, because I did it exactly the same way. I was extremely precise with the project and if anything I saved money because I used less film than I had anticipated. I didn’t do one more hour than was budgeted for. It was me that chose everything – I was obsessed with lace and I went to the flea market and picked everything out, I chose all the objects.
Filmmaker: The film seems to continue a preoccupation that you have with the relationship between violence and sexuality.
Breillat: In cinema, I love violence and sexuality. I love blood, but not in the style of chainsaw massacres. Apart from the painters from the Renaissance who are my absolute inspiration, when I was very small I had a passion for [Chaim] Soutine. You know, that crazy painter who painted hanging carcasses. [laughs] I was a lot like that in the end. I love that funereal violence. Also [Francis] Bacon was very violent. I adore Cronenberg, who’s very violent – and I hope I’ll be as violent as he is in my next movie! [laughs]
Filmmaker: As with Anatomy of Hell, this is a film where the male lead seems to be your muse.
Breillat: I’m always told that I don’t like men and that I like women so much more in my films. But I think, in any case, with this movie I project myself and identify with the character of the young man. The camera is in love with him. It’s his intimacy that the camera penetrates. Asia is a person who is much more on the exterior and is more the fantasy of the femme fatale.
Filmmaker: So in the past you’ve felt that you’ve liked your male characters, but film critics haven’t?
Breillat: Yes, because in the end the males were the ones that acted but what interested me was how a woman looked in the eyes of a man. Because the look constitutes the person. As a woman, you don’t really know what you’re made of under a man’s gaze. As I’m an entomologist, that’s what interested me the most, to see that. [laughs] Now that I’ve seen it, I can project myself into the body of men.
Filmmaker: You described the Asia Argento character as the fantasy of a femme fatale, and this almost feels like a period film noir.
Breillat: Yes, the novel’s like that. I adore film noir and femme fatales – Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe – they’re always fatal only to themselves. I also love the iconography of American film noir and femme fatales but also Orientalism, those femme fatales as well. What makes Vellini a femme fatale is that she has that side of a Flamenca from Seville, and then a very feminine side. Her father was a toreador, and all toreadors have a very feminine side – they dance with bulls. They’re dressed in a very Oriental fashion, wearing golden bolero. All of the paintings of the 19th century with that Oriental influence have in them the dream of the femme fatale in the harem. Orientalism is also a fantasy of the femme fatale, so I wanted to mix the two.
Filmmaker: Your films have previously always been very grounded in the present, so what do you feel is the contemporary relevance of this film?
Breillat: Well, for one thing, there’s an androgyny between boys and girls currently. Dior and Chanel, all they’re creating for boys is dandy costumes. If you look at ads for Hugo Boss, all of the models have a feminine beauty. The look of masculine beauty that you can see in Renaissance paintings or Holbein’s paintings has become a model for contemporary beauty. That sort of rock ‘n’ roll look that’s almost masculine that you see in women is an iconography of this time as well. Furthermore, this story takes place during what I call the last cry of the aristocracy: the aristocracy are rich, they didn’t worry about money – the bankers were the ones who worried about money, not the aristocrats. Their moral values were more in their nobility of character than in the heart, with large freedom of spirit and mores. Passion had its place in the aristocracy; when she says, “Hermangarde is rich enough for both of them,” that’s not something that would be said during the century of the bourgeoisie. The century of the bourgeoisie, with the rise of industrialism in society, is just starting to appear when this novel is being written. And with the appearance of the bourgeoisie is the hypocrisy of a certain puritanism. And I personally believe that we’re still in the 19th century.
Filmmaker: But you’ve said elsewhere that you’re an 18th century woman.
Breillat: Of course. I’m free, I’m not a horrible bourgeoise. [laughs]
Filmmaker: I’m interested in how you view the feminist aspect of this film.
Breillat: If I had written this, they would have told me I’m a feminist but it’s Barbey d’Aurevilly who wrote it. Everything that the two older women say when they’re discussing men would have seemed like clichés had it not been for the fact that Barbey d’Aurevilly wrote all of it word for word. And there’s also little digs about women who are too well educated whose moral values degenerate that’s also in Barbey d’Aurevilly’s book. I find the two very amusing.
Filmmaker: There’s a line in the movie, “It’s the perverse influence of over-provocative novels on female common sense.” Does that also come straight from the novel?
Breillat: That’s the only one where I can’t remember whether I invented it or it was actually in the novel.
Filmmaker: Your movies seem like the modern equivalent of “over-provocative novels.”
Breillat: This book had a lot of problems with censorship. [Barbey d’Aurevilly] almost went to prison because of this book, so he had to then go and backpedal and say that actually what he was really doing was showing how awful vice was, and that he was singing the praises of virtue.
Filmmaker: How much do you associate with him, comparing what he was doing then and what you’re doing now as a filmmaker?
Breillat: I think it’s clear that if I had lived at the time that he did, I would have been Barbey d’Aurevilly. I’m very romantic, contrary to what most people think. He can be very provocative, but also very romantic.
Filmmaker: You’ve said that this film is closest to you as a person. Can you explain exactly why that is?
Breillat: It is the film where I plunge to the core of romanticism. It’s always been said that I’m absolutely unromantic, but I think that everybody was wrong. They’ve always made a mistake that way because, for instance, Romance was very romantic. Romanticism is always something that’s very dark. Romanticism is despair – Lord Byron killed himself. It’s an adolescent despair of having an ideal that you can never attain. I’m like Madame De Flers, who’s furiously, avidly 18th century; I’m furiously, avidly adolescent.
Filmmaker: You said that with Anatomy of Hell you closed a chapter stylistically so that you could move on to this. How did you know you’d finished working in that vein?
Breillat: It’s not a certain style, it’s that Anatomy of Hell is like a theory, and once you’ve made a theory you can move on to something else that is more romantic. In fairness, I’m not a mathematician or a philosopher and it gave me the chance to come back to something that was more fictional. And softer. Because a theorem is radicalness, but it’s also absolute solitude and there’s almost no fiction in Anatomy of Hell.
Filmmaker: You were saying before that you came to New York with 36 Fillette and that the reception here made the French reevaluate the quality of your work. How isolated have you felt as a voice in French film?
Breillat: I felt lynched in France. It wasn’t that they didn’t like the movie, they hated me. When 36 Fillette was chosen for the New York Film Festival, the president of uniFrance made a special trip to come here so he could say that my film was not representative of French cinema and that they had made a mistake in selecting me. When I say it’s hate, it’s hate. It’s not called by any other name. It was stupefying.
Filmmaker: Do you feel that’s still the case today?
Breillat: It’s half and half. When you have people who really hate you then there’s other people who start to love you. The French finally noticed that there was another world aside from France around them. And to not be representative of French cinema could mean that you are representative of cinema and that’s, in fact, much better.
Filmmaker: Do you think this film will change the way the French film community feels about you?
Breillat: Yes, there are some people who hated me who are now starting to say that, yes, I had made a really good film now, that I had calmed down. But I have not calmed down! [laughs] They’re wrong. And people who are wrong will always be wrong. [laughs]
Filmmaker: You compared yourself to Ryno because somebody says of him that if he becomes a politician then he will always try to be unpopular.
Breillat: That’s totally me. Even when I was young and published my first book, people would say, “Who did you write this book for?” I always said, “For me. Only for me.” I was very arrogant. When I did my second movie, Tapage Nocturne, I was on a television programme and was attacked by Gainsbourg, who said it was a porno film. In fact, it was a portrait of a modern woman in the exact same way that 36 Fillette is the portrait of an adolescent. At the beginning I was shy and allowing myself to be insulted, and all of a sudden I looked them straight in the eye and said I was 20 years ahead of my time and the future would prove me right. Despite that, when I saw my first film [A Real Young Girl] 25 years after it came out, I looked at it and said, “Well, it’s a young film, but it’s a modern film.” At that time with that film, the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes refused me because it was a horrible film and pornographic. They said it was also very badly directed, so I sent them a letter with return receipt requested because I was making a date for the future and the future would prove them wrong. I’ve always been arrogant, and arrogance in France is not perceived well. It’s a country where they cover their heads, a country of courtesans. I always say in interviews that France is the country of Louis XIV and Marshal Pétain, and that’s the deep French character. Of course, there are exceptions and, of course, the exceptions are sublime and beautiful.
Filmmaker: Do you sometimes feel pressure to be controversial, to keep on upsetting people?
Breillat: No, I don’t do it on purpose but my shell has gotten a little thicker so I can take it, but sometimes I do cry. After the Berlin Film Festival where I was on the jury, I was sitting on the plane and there in the paper was an announcement that looked like a notice of death, framed in black, saying “FINISH WITH CATHERINE BREILLAT” in enormous black letters, like they wanted to kill me. It’s phenomenal hate. I thought I had come back with 36 Fillette, so I sobbed for two days. I was desperate and then I lifted my head up and I wrote an article for a very sophisticated French review and I called it “The Importance of Being Hated.”