The Reeler


October 7, 2007

Harsh Mistress

Reeler Interview: Director Breillat on her passion project and a diva named Argento

Asia Argento as the title character of Catherine Breillat's An Old Mistress, screening at this year's New York Film Festival (Photos: IFC Films)

A decade in the making and budgeted around the cost of her last four films combined, Catherine Breillat's Une Vieille Maîtresse (An Old Mistress, bafflingly mistranslated as The Last Mistress for its Stateside release) ranks high among the hellraising director's most important films. Its symbolism resonates as much as anything in the script -- Maîtresse is Breillat's first project since she suffered a crippling cerebral hemorrhage in 2004 -- but its period subversion of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's 19th-century source novel also presents a compelling new dimension for a filmmaker best known for explicit, sharply contemporary riffs on sexuality like Romance, Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell.

Then there's the Asia factor: The fearless Miss Argento portrays La Vellini, the man-devouring Spanish siren of the title. Threatened with losing her longtime lover Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) to beautiful young Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) and the French establishment at large, La Vellini enacts an uneasy seduction asserting both her possession and torment of Ryno; related in flashbacks, their history gives way to the combustible Breillat cocktail of sex compromised (if not defined) by power struggles and social angst.

The Reeler met with Breillat the day after her film's New York Film Festival premiere to discuss her 19th-century time warp, her recovery and pulling Asia Argento down to earth.

THE REELER: At one point in An Old Mistress, a character says of Ryno: "If he were a minister, he'd do his utmost to make himself unpopular." I sense you relate to that at some level, don't you?

CATHERINE BREILLAT: Totally. Totally. That's who I identify with the most. But it's in the book.

R: Is that type of relatability one of the factors that led you to such loyal pursuit of this project over the last decade?

CB: No, because for 10 years, I forgot a lot about the details. I kept that because it's in the novel, but it wasn't almost until the editing that I saw it and really said, "I can't cut it, because that represents me entirely." In fact, I'd always said I was Ryno de Marigny, but there, all of the sudden it was even more evident.

R: But despite having carried the project so closely so long, you still took some extraordinary liberties with the story. How did you reconcile d'Aurevilly's vision with your own?

CB: I didn't really take that many liberties, and I didn't really reconcile it. I conciliated it, because I had the impression that I was the author of this film. That's the problem with fiction -- you recognize yourself in fiction that you love.

R: Was Asia Argento always your first choice for the title role?

CB: Yes -- when she was very young. I was in Toronto for Romance, and she was giving a press conference. I said to someone from Unifrance: "She -- she -- is an old mistress." I ran after her and asked her for her phone number. She was very, very young, but I still said, "That's the old mistress." But it's like I never wanted her to be old. And then I lost her phone number, of course. And after Romance, I was supposed to do An Old Mistress, and then I gave my producers Fat Girl and so on until we arrived at the moment I was supposed to do it. Then I had my cerebral hemorrhage accident and it was pushed back. That's when I put my hand back on Asia.

R: At least in terms of your respective careers, there would appear to be a stylistic compatibility between you and Asia. Did anything like that exist once you started working together?

CB: No. I came from the provinces; I started at 16. It was a time when it was much more complicated and difficult to do cinema or literature. It's not at all the same life. Asia came from a film family. But let's say that I had a feel for modernness, because we resemble each other despite the fact that there's a 30-year age gap.

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R: Infamously intrepid as she is, even she expressed some qualms about the sex scenes in the film. Did you do anything to assuage those apprehensions?

CB: First of all, without fear, there is no unsettledness. I'm puritan in the sense that I don't like an actress to do things just like a whore. I like her to do it when the film carries her through the action -- when the impulse comes. If she had no fear at all and just threw off her clothes without a thought, she wouldn't have interested me at all. An exhibitionist actress wouldn't have interested me. I needed that intimacy.

R: Anyone who's seen Sex is Comedy can deduce what a tactile, literally hands-on filmmaker you are. But the physicality here is more textural -- Sex is Period Drama, so to speak. Did that change your approach to that intimacy?

CB: Not at all. You can even ask me with my body that doesn't work right, and I function exactly the same. It's only me who knows how actors need to move in relation to each other, how it's going to look for the camera, what angle's going to look pretty. Choreographers touch the bodies of their dancers.

R: Your illness set the film back more than a year, right?

CB: One year to the day.

R: What was your initial impression of how that would impact this project?

CB: First of all, a lot of directors wanted to use Asia because they knew I was going to do it. That was a real impediment in terms of the dates and in terms of Asia's mental availability. She was just a coquette, seeing movies everywhere and not really focusing on mine. She couldn't see where mine was.

R: "Mental availability?"

CB: I was offering her her first major role in France, and she was very much in need of doing something like that. The fact that she had an extra year, and a lot of people started offering her parts, it turned her head. She wasn't really on my movie as much anymore -- not quite. In the movie, she's completely in the movie, so in the final analysis it changes nothing. Just like my accident didn't change anything -- only insurance. The problems with Asia were more logistical: Getting her to France; getting her to learn to ride a horse; getting her to go to the costume fittings; getting her to be on time. She didn't have an awareness that you have to prepare a costume drama. You don't just arrive the night before and then, "Boom." The costumes, the hair, you have to have several fittings, and to ride a horse, even one that's well-trained, you have to little bit of rehearsal.

She had no awareness with regard to that, so I sent her a terrible e-mail -- this bomb -- and that was it. My producer and her agent were really pretty upset about it. But I was sure it was the right thing to do. There's a certain point where the director has to have the power in the film. You have to risk that everything is going to break. But the film has to be the master, not the actress. And that, Asia understood very well; she's very intelligent, and as soon as you start to talk about film, she understands. And she loves. She is someone who gives herself to cinema.

R: Did you two relate to each other in that sense? As maybe kindred spirits?

CB: No! Absolutely not kindred spirits. Asia is somebody totally selfish -- out of sight, out of mind. I'm sure that when we see each other we're going to hug each other, kiss each other and she will love me sincerely right when I'm there. And the second that she sees me and she says it, she will be sincere. But she'll have sincerely forgotten me the way Ryno forgets Hermangarde as soon as she walks past the threshold.

R: Would you work with her again?

CB: I wouldn't write a screenplay especially for her, but it is clear she has a cinematic nature that absolutely fabulous and surprising. If I need that type of nature, of course I would work with her again. Maybe Asia is very loyal, and it's just me who's not being fair. In fact I'm extremely possessive of my actors, so I have paranoid jealousy episodes. But with everything I say about Asia that's good and everything I say that's bad, I wouldn't say I miss her. She didn't belong to me enough. So I really resented the fact that she had three films at Cannes. I felt she should just have mine. It's true that for the film's image it would have been better.

R: And you don't even have her to yourself in New York; she's the wicked muse in Go Go Tales as well.

CB: I didn't know! But I took her from Abel Ferrara. If I hadn't seen her in New Rose Hotel... I mean, he's the father of the Cinema of Asia. At one point I wanted him to play her husband.

R: I... can't imagine. Why didn't it happen?

CB: Asia didn’t show up. She wasn't there, so I took my revenge by getting her a really old husband.

R: Right. Because Abel is so young.

CB: And at the same time, (the husband)'s so English. Abel is really American. That wasn't going to work.

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