At first glance, Catherine Breillat's return to feature filmmaking after a debilitating stroke laid her low in 2004 is a total about face: It's not only a period piece, the film is a relatively restrained exercise in sexual mores and manners from a director known for raw, extremely graphic depictions of sex and psychologies. But under the beautifully appointed costumes and to-die-for interiors is Breillat's preoccupation with female sexuality and desire, all centered on a blistering performance from a perfectly cast Asia Argento.
Paris, 1838. Choderlos Laclos, the French writer whose novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses exposed the sexual intrigues of the French aristocracy, has been dead for 35 years, but some things never change. As the film opens, the gouty, gluttonous Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and the Comtesse d'Artelles (Yolande Moreau) are conspiring to derail the upcoming marriage of M. Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) to Hermangarde de Polastron (Roxane Mesquida), the sweet and guileless granddaughter of the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute). While pretty Hermangarde is widely considered to be the jewel of the aristocracy, M. de Marigny has the reputation of an untitled gambler with a taste for women and scandal who has been carrying on an affair with the same mistress for the past 10 years: Senora Vellini (Argento), a 36-year-old Spanish courtesan who's said to be the illegitimate offspring of a Spanish noblewoman and a matador. Once married to a elderly British baronet (Nicholas Hawtrey), later the lover of Marigny's best friend, the Compte de Mareuil (Jean-Philippe Tesse), Senora Vellini has spent the last tumultuous decade in and out of the bed of the man who's about to marry into one of France's noblest families. The Vicomte hopes to put a stop to the nuptials by stoking the senora's jealousy and inciting a scandal. But the fiery flamenca from Malaga doesn't take the Vicomte's bait -- she knows all too well that a marriage is a guarantees of nothing -- and even the Comtesse's direct appeal to Hermangarde's grandmother backfires. Instead of withdrawing her approval, this wise old woman -- a grand dame who's read Laclos and knows quite well the ways and wiles of the libertine (she admits she happily married one) -- asks Marigny to tell her the whole story of his affair with "La Vellini," the kind of woman men can't resist and other women simply refer to as "that creature."
Based on an early novel by the 19th-century French Symbolist Jules-Amedee Barbey d'Aurevilly (Les Diaboliques), Breillat's lusty adaptation softens the potential misogyny to focus on the differing degrees of flexibility accorded to men and women in the deeply hypocritical world of the French aristocracy. It's also the kind of delicious costume drama you want to eat with a spoon. Newcomer Aattou brings a louche, almost feminine quality to the role of the libertine (his lips put Angelina Jolie to shame) while Argento is a revelation: Her utterly fearless, naturalistic performance carries the same kind of raw earthy quality as her great compatriot, Anna Magnani. Presented like a Goya exotique, she's a snarling, highly sexualized force of a nature who would just as soon cut you as kiss you, and then lick the blade. leave a comment --Ken Fox