“When I make movies, nothing is limited.”
Perhaps the last thing anyone expected from French writer-director Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl) was a stately costume drama based on a musty old mid-19th-century novel. But The Last Mistress, in spite of its frilly couture and horse-drawn carriages, is no middlebrow Merchant-Ivory production. As Breillat herself acknowledges in the conversation below, the film, adapted from Jules Amédée Barbey D’Aurevilly’s 1851 novel, was a pet project that extends many of the themes that have interested her since the beginning of her career as a novelist and filmmaker. Completed after a devastating stroke that left her partially paralyzed, it is her first collaboration with Asia Argento, the now ubiquitous wild child known for chewing up lurid sexpot roles, most recently in work by Abel Ferrara (Go Go Tales) and Olivier Assayas (Boarding Gate). The Last Mistress tells the story of Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Attou), a libertine in Louis Philippe’s France whose impending marriage to the virginal Hermangarde (Fat Girl’s Roxane Mesquida) is threatened by his well-known dalliance with La Vellini (Argento), the prideful Andalusian divorcée with whom he has had a torrid, complicated affair for ten years. On the eve of his betrothment, as the aristocratic classes titter about Ryno’s rascally behavior, he spends an evening confessing to Hermangarde’s broad-minded grandmother (Claude Sarraute) the sordid and tragic history of his involvement with Vellini, and why he’s decided to break off their relationship for good. Of course, his marital fidelity is eventually tested by La Vellini’s undaunted ardor, sealed in a blood pact, and her utter disregard for middle-class pieties.
Passion devours and destroys in Breillat’s film, precisely because it is an irresistible, irrational force that the rigid morals of a prurient society cannot control or contain yet still manage to spoil. In that sense, the film is of a piece with the director’s art-porn provocations in advocating the liberation of love and sexuality — female sexuality, specifically — from the constraints of bourgeois moral law and public consensus. It is no accident that The Last Mistress is set in 1835, a time when the hedonism of aristocratic society was beginning to give way to the zealous, narrow-minded orthodoxies of a newly empowered middle class. In October 2007, on the eve of IFC Films’ release of The Last Mistress, I spoke with Breillat about sex and feminism, Decadent authors, and why Naomi Campbell was anxious to star in Bad Love (2009), her latest movie.
Over the course of your films, your prevailing concern has been to challenge our conventional notions of sex and sexuality. But you have had a very specific focus on female desire, and it seems Une vieille maîtresse, is a slight departure for you in that it really seems to focus on the power of passion.
That’s because I project myself more in the character of Ryno than La Vellini, who in fact I am looking at as a person who can drag you into passion. I was more into the soul of Ryno. Passion is very, very sexual. And people find Vellini ugly because she’s a woman who wants, who desires. A very modern woman. She’s very free and extremely sensual.
What initially brought your attention to Barbey D’Aurevilly’s novel?
I don’t know why, but I read the novel with a certain enchantment, delight. And the personage of Ryno is actually Barbey D’Aurevilly (right). The character of Le vicomte de Prony is also Barbey. What he says at the end is that if Ryno de Marigny ever becomes a minister, he would do his utmost to make himself unpopular. I know nobody who throws his gauntlet down to public opinion as well as he does. And that’s me! [Laughs] I always identified with Barbey D’Aurevilly, an author who is very much like me except in the 19th century.
He’s known for a very florid, flamboyant style.
That’s why I adapted him! I often do things with two characters who confront each other. In fact, I’m not very romantic. I wanted to do something that was romantic, and I’m not capable of doing that myself, so I took Barbey D’Aurevilly.
Did that challenge you in terms of adapting his style of writing and making it more cinematic?
No. Nothing is a challenge. Or — all films are a challenge. But he became me and the subject was mine. The challenge was the budget. [Laughs]
You had about a $10 million budget?
No, less. Eight. But you can’t imagine how difficult it is to make a movie like this and keep it within a budget that [small]. Everything’s expensive, if you dress a character. You need a lot more time to dress each actor, so you have to have one wardrobe mistress for each character. You need one hairdresser per actor. You could spend the whole day dressing them, and then you wouldn’t have time to film anything! [Laughs] So what’s fun is to find cinematographic solutions: For the church scene, I needed 500 people, and 500 is €1 million, maybe more — a million Euros! Everybody who has more money than I do can fill an opera house, a church. So what’s interesting for me is to decide what do I really need in the scene? And what do I need in the frame? So actually, at the opera, I only used 26 people. [Laughs] And at the church, the same thing. I shot two churches — I told my production man that I needed two. I’m very symbolic, and I needed a very large door entrance to the church, but I wanted the gold Christ from the other church. That way I could combine and ellipse them. And that’s a lot more fun really than saying, Okay, 500 people? I’ll just order them. It requires cinematographic thinking and reflection.
I never even noticed. The illusion is complete.
That’s what’s interesting — creating that illusion. When you’re looking at the [film], you see 500 people.
I was deeply impressed with the performance by Fu’ad Attou.
[Correcting] Fu’ad Aït Attou (right). I have to explain his name to you and why the “Aït” is so important. He’s not Arab, he’s Berber. And when Morocco became independent, they wanted the Berbers to take Arab names even though they had their own tribes they belonged to. And since the Berbers are a very proud people, they just called themselves “Aït.” So it means “from the tribe Attou,” because the Berbers only retained their tribe name. Fu’ad is very noble and proud, and he really feels strongly about his name because it’s a Berber name. It’s a Berber name that is against Arab names.
That quality in his character certainly comes through in the movie, that kind of pride and intensity. I was curious, though, since this is a debut film for him.
He had never acted in a short film, in theater — nothing.
So how did you know when you met him in a Paris café that he would be so good?
I didn’t know. I said, “He’s for me if he can act.” [Smiles]
Did you have to work with him a lot on set?
No. I never work a lot with my actors and never before [the shoot]. I just told him when I chose him to really focus and stay in character, so that we wouldn’t have to start over again and again. I told him not to joke around with the others, because then he would lose character, so that’s why he was not very liked on the set. [Laughs] But actually, he’s naturally like that — he’s a very solitary individual.
Asia Argento, on the other hand, is a force of nature, and has a reputation for being difficult to work with. How did you get along with her?
Incredibly well, and incredibly badly. Because Asia (right) first she needs to fight against. She’s reputed for scaring everybody, and she loves to keep up her reputation. At the same time, she hates people who are afraid of her. [Laughs] So I preferred that she be a little afraid of me. And she was scared of me. After that, we got along fine.
Well, you seem to have chosen actors whose personalities blended almost perfectly with the characters they’re playing.
You think that because they’re good actors.
Perhaps that’s true. On another note, you’ve compared your cinema, your films, to painting; and the Decadents, from Baudelaire to Huysmans, attempted to draw some of the same qualities in their writing.
They had a deep affinity with painters. So I wondered if you thought of not just film, but your own writing — your novels and screenplays — in the same way, as a form of painting.
Writing is music. But to come back to color in painting, there’s an autistic person in France who’s able to calculate, in the course of a minute, incredibly complicated and lengthy calculations, faster than a computer. And when people say “How do you do it?” He says, “I see colors go by. Colors that are just flying by.”
Hmm. That heightening of sense and perceptions was very crucial to this period in 19th-century writing, too. I wonder how much of that tradition, especially the mix of sacred and profane, you wanted to draw on in order to tell this story?
Since Barbey D’Aurevilly was extremely censored, I’ve tried to read between the lines. Passion was expressed often [by lovers] through blood pacts, and I tried to read into that. They exchange blood, and so starting from there, it’s an eternal pact. Ryno explains that he always comes back to Vellini through their blood pact, but I think it was sexual attraction. As I’m sure it is. I think Barbey just couldn’t write it that way. At the same time, Ryno continually finds himself again in this passion that’s almost like a fury. But he is not proud of that — he experiences it as something shameful.
The idea of passion as suffering is certainly an important part of the film. In the scene where the bullet is being extracted from his chest wound, it’s almost as if his heart is being wrenched from his body.
Yes, but I love blood! [Laughs] And in fact, I usually paint the blood myself. It has to be like drawing, a red pen-and-ink drawing. I think this young man who I put in a tilted position, he also looked a little like San Sebastian. And I love San Sebastian. [Laughs] It’s an image of cruelty and suffering, but also the beauty of man, the beauty of suffering, of the stoic suffering of a young man. So there’s a certain fascination there as Vellini looks at him. It’s true — it is his heart that’s being taken, and she’s looking at it.
This film was going into production when you had your stroke. How did that change your approach to the story when you came back to it?
The only effect it had was that no one would insure me. [Laughs]
Since you’re used to sculpting your actors, it must have been tough to do that, if your range of movement was somewhat limited.
When I make a movie, nothing is limited. I can do what I want with my body when it’s [in service to] art. It’s amazing: There are things in life I can’t do, that I can do [on set]. And my assistant helps me a lot. And my actors, too. Once in a while, I push my actors aside and say, “Okay, now you have to let me do it like this,” and I show them. At one point I was on the bed, and I said, “Oh my God, help! I can’t get down from the bed. You have to come and get the toad!” [Laughs]
This was the first film you were ever invited to screen at Cannes. And it was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Did you feel, in addition to joy, a sense of validation after so many years of censorship and bad press?
No, not really. I think it just meant that I wasn’t conforming to what the norms were for French cinema. In a way, I think the integrity of an artist is not to be liked and even to be hated, because then you move things, stir things up. I even wrote an article saying “The Importance of Being Hated.” In a sense, if everyone loves you, it means you’re not bringing anything new anymore.
In this story, passion was a very cathartic force.
But that’s always the way it is: You see somebody and lightning strikes, or the earth moves. Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida, below) is thunderstruck by Ryno, and Ryno by Vellini.
Yet the film ends on an indefinite, almost a sour note, rather than with a liberating flourish.
The book is constructed this way. There’s a prologue with the countess. This marriage that’s really against the social mores. And the epilogue is exactly the same as the book. It’s like a fairy tale. “Once upon a time . . .” I didn’t invent anything.
It was not what I expected.
What were you expecting?
I’m not sure.
But if you expected something else, somebody else would have made the movie. [Laughs] That’s always what I say, because when I’m on set and I have a lot of problems with the script, and someone else is trying to tell me what to do, I say “That’s because you’re not me and you don’t see it the way I see it.” Particularly for love scenes.
Can you tell me something about your next feature, Bad Love, with Naomi Campbell?
It’s going to be in English, but not like the French directors who want to make an American film. Naomi speaks English, you can’t make her speak French. And the man is a European who speaks English, but with an accent, and I’m going to make the film in France. Only the beginning will be set in Toronto. I want Niagara Falls. But otherwise, I want to be in my country, in my home, to make a film. Artisanal again. The young man also speaks Chinese, that’s how he meets Naomi. But he’s not Chinese. He lives in Beijing, and he says himself that he lives there because he feels like he’s a white Chinaman. So it’ll be an English film, but I’ll make it entirely in France and the man will not be English or American.
Will it be based on an original screenplay?
I didn’t do it on purpose, but while I was writing the screenplay, all of a sudden I found it was a book, so I published it as a novel. I wrote it precisely and uniquely for Naomi Campbell. She came to see me, she wanted to work with me. She came, she sat, I said “Okay, I make all my actors do screen tests. So even if your image is worth a lot of money, there’s no point in us working together if it’s going to be ridiculous.” I needed to know — and I had actually sneaked in one of my cameramen. We started to do some tests. Naomi threw her agent out. I said, “Okay, we’re going to do these screen tests and I’m going to show them to you, and if you don’t like them, I’ll give you the cassettes.” So we did the tests and they were so moving and so pure. So she took me and my assistant in her arms, and she didn’t want to see the cassettes or take them back. Then I had my stroke and she came to see me at the hospital, and they didn’t let her in. [Laughs] I wanted to first do Une vieille maîtresse because I didn’t want people to think of me as an invalid or handicapped. I needed to do that and I knew I couldn’t use Naomi in that film. I want to be a director — nothing else. So when I was finished with that film, I called Naomi’s agent and I said I was finished if Naomi still wanted to work with me. I was going to write the screenplay, because I wanted to as well, but only if she still wanted to do it. And only if they went to see my producer and we started to talk about it. So she came — in fact, she wasn’t supposed to come. It was supposed to be her agent, my producer, and me. She appeared and the agent finally said, well, what is it exactly you want to do? And I leaned over to Naomi — me, who speaks English very badly — I was leaning on her body and telling her the story [laughs] like a magnifying glass. I talked for about half an hour. And if I had recorded it, my screenplay would have been done!
That’s a collaboration I very much look forward to seeing.