French filmaker Catherine Breillat is no stranger to l'amour fou. Since 1976's A Real Young Girl, adapted from her novel Le Soupirail, Breillat has portrayed the extremes of female sexuality with a rawness that's made her a lightning rod for controversy, her films labeled everything from revolutionary to exploitative to misogynist. Exploring contemporary sexual mores is the raison d'être of films such as 36 Fillette, Romance, and Anatomy of Hell, and pushing the boundaries of what could — or should — be shown onscreen a vital part of her work.

So The Last Mistress comes as an interesting departure. Set amid the Parisian aristocracy of 1835, this adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's novel Une Vieille Maîtresse is a stunningly beautiful period film, classically elegant and steeped in literary conventions. Although it contains elements of her previous movies (the manipulative maneuvering of Sex is Comedy and ingrained cruelty of Fat Girl), The Last Mistress is in thrall to Vellini (Asia Argento) and Ryno (Fu'ad Aïd Aattou), lovers whose bond is as conspiratorial as it is unbreakable.

Their tempestuous tale is told primarily from an outsider's perspective; commentary from elderly, concerned observers bookends the film. Breillat also frames a large chunk of the narrative as a flashback, with the regal libertine Ryno de Marigny recalling his obsessive relationship with the socially dubious, Spanish-born Lady Vellini Annesley (her title courtesy of an elderly British husband) to the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), the worldly grandmother of his young, impressionable fiancée, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida).

Although The Last Mistress doesn't have the brutal bite of The Duchess of Langeais or the mercenary machinations of The Other Boleyn Girl, Breillat excels when she focuses on the devouring devotion of Vellini and Ryno, their vampiric union feeding off a spicy stew of passion, hostility, remorse, guilt and recriminations. Their sex scenes are the direct expression of that heady brew, along with a carnal need that trumps all better sense.

Argento, with her earthy masculinity, and Aattou, with his ethereal femininity, are magnetically drawn together, oblivious to scandal. There's a resignation to their decade-long coupling, a mutual acknowledgement of the primacy of their unspoken vows, without the expectation of pleasure.

Breillat is as enamored of Vellini and Ryno as they are of each other, and it brings warmth to her storytelling. After three decades of expanding the sexual parameters of straight cinema, she's finally discovered something akin to love.

Opens on Friday, July 25, exclusively at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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