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With films like Fat Girl and Romance, Catherine Breillat has gained international notoriety for her frank, explicit depictions of sex and the way it relates to power. (Is it any wonder that she played a bit part in Bernardo Bertolucci's seminal Last Tango in Paris?) So it may come as a surprise that the director's latest is an evocative period piece. Based on the novel by nineteenth-century writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, The Last Mistress follows a young man, Ryno de Marigny, whose impending marriage to a lovely aristocrat is thrown in jeopardy when rumors surface of his affair with a passionate Spaniard, Vellini (Asia Argento, in a pretty amazing performance). But despite the centuries separating the novel's time from our own, Breillat's film bears striking similarities to her other works — most notably Romance — in its depiction of moments when romantic longing vanishes, and, yes, its intensely physical sex scenes. We spoke to Breillat during the New York Film Festival, where Mistress received a rapturous response. — Bilge Ebiri
You've wanted to make this particular film for ten years. What took you so long?
I had the idea for making this film right before I made Romance.
This is a book that I've always felt close to. I was preparing The Last Mistress, when I realized that a lot of great filmmakers had tried to step over definitive censorship lines, and I was seized with the desire to make a film that was more confrontational towards censorship and taboos. So I stopped working on The Last Mistress and made Romance instead.
This was your first adaptation of someone else's work.
Since it was my first adaptation, I did ask myself if I wasn't going to betray myself and do something that didn't work. And I was extremely careful with the historical details — the lace, the woodwork, the sets. Almost everything, I chose. At the same time I wanted something very symbolic and very alive. I like the way fabric falls, and I wanted fabric that moves well with people. These people are alive in their costumes. I did not want them to feel trapped in their costumes. That's not realism to me. For example, if we do a movie, in thirty years, of this time period, I guarantee you that the actors will look stiff in their costumes.
How has your conception of The Last Mistress changed over those years?
My conception hasn't changed, so much as my power in making a film, and my ability to manage a team. Today, when I make a film, I have the confidence to know that I'm right when I say I want to handle the costumes a certain way or to do this type of ellipse. For a large historical film like this, that is very important. When you have a large-budget film, people say you must do certain things and give up control. But no. I choose all my actors, all my extras, everything, right down to the costumes and the details. Everything is real. Except for the things we invented for the character of Vellini — she is so out of step with her period and her fashions, so I inspired myself with Delacroix, and Goya, and the Ottoman Empire. And Marlene Dietrich in The Devil is a Woman. It's ironic; the most beautiful Spanish woman of all time was a German with blonde hair and blue eyes!
You've built a reputation for your foregrounding of explicit sex. When you tackle a project like this, which is more restrained, do you worry about public expectations?
I've never changed. I'm an entomologist. When I'm doing a scene, I always want to be between the two bodies, in the center of the intimacy — where nobody can be. That's where the place of emotion is. And contrary to what most people think, I've always thought that physical love is always the core of emotional love between two beings. The Last Mistress is not all that different.
This is, however, your first film with a male protagonist.
I always thought I would have been Barbey d'Aurevilly, had I lived in his time. I'm a total dandy. And Barbey describes himself completely in the character of Ryno de Marigny. It's a very autobiographical story. I of course identified myself with the character of the young man. And Vellini is my dream of the vamp in the 1930s and '40s. I fought a lot with the costume designer so that Vellini could have cleavage from the '40s. And Fu'ad [Ait Aattou], the boy that I found to play Ryno de Marigny, was like a dream come true. He looked like he came out of the Italian Renaissance. He has an almost feminine beauty, but he is not effeminate at all. For fifteen years I've been looking for an actor like that. I saw him at a café in Paris, and I said to my assistant, "That — that is Ryno de Marigny."
He's as sexualized as the female characters. It's rare to see such physicality in a period film.
But not in period novels. I think that great fiction is always contemporary, or it wouldn't interest us. Otherwise it's a dust museum. I know that a lot of costume films are dust museums. In fact, that's why I'm happy to have made this movie ten years later than I had intended to, because it would have been easy, like most directors, to let myself become overwhelmed by the demands of the costumes, the lighting, etc. Costume designers look at etchings from the period. I look at paintings.
Do you improvise much on set?
I never do any improvisation. I frame everything with enormous exactitude. I do, however, wait for the magic take, where something unexpected happens. When you want to have everything in your power, there's no room for magic. Something has to escape.
How do you achieve that level of intimacy between your actors?
It's something that's in my blood. I always ask myself why others aren't able to achieve it. It's very easy. It's like a bewitching. You have to escape completely from the notion of sexual presentation. You have to be completely in the emotion, and then you achieve a complete purity. When you can do that, there's a vibration on the set — there's nothing ugly, nothing bad about that. I always tell my actors that the more they censor themselves, the more it would look like a porn film. I am very careful with their bodies and emotions. In The Last Mistress, we could never see the sex organ of Fu'ad Ait Aattou, the lead actor — so I knew how to create the scenes so that they didn't look censored. He had to trust me. Because he still had to be naked when we were filming.
You've worked with a wide range of acting styles — from veteran actors to complete non-professionals, to porn stars. What do you look for in an actor?
It's an instinct. If a film has only stars in it from the get-go, it is going to be conventional. I see people, and I feel they're mine. It's something that's analogous to falling in love — after all, the camera is a lover. I see them, and I almost never make an error. When I was trying to make Sex Is Comedy, every actress in France was refusing the part of the film-director character. Then one night I saw Anne [Parillaud] at a theatrical premiere. We were in the lobby, waiting to congratulate the actors. And all of a sudden I saw Anne on her tiptoes, looking over at me. And I said to my assistant, "She is going to do my movie." I didn't even send her a script. I just had a sense that she was going to do the film. And she did.
©2007 Bilge Ebiri & Nerve.com