By Michael Guillén
Catherine Breillat's Une vieille maîtresse (The Last Mistress, 2007) opened the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival after garnering many favorable reviews on its festival trajectory and Breillat was on hand to demonstrate her mesmerizing blend of premature frailty and fierce self-bemusement.
One could make an entertaining sport out of quoting Catherine Breillat. Bon mots seem as effortless as breath for her. When interviewed by Benjamin Secher for the Telegraph, she proclaimed, "All true artists are hated. Only conformists are ever adored." She went on to insist: "You have to be arrogant to achieve anything in this life." As for her craft? "The difficulties are what force you to manufacture illusions, which is what true filmmaking is all about."
In her interview with Adam Thursby for movieScope, she opined, "Pornography is a question of aesthetics not morals. We can't base our morals on aesthetics." "The film set is a place of bewitchment," she added. "I don't direct the film, the film directs itself. I don't direct the actors, I bewitch them." My favorite, however, might be from the DVD interview of Fat Girl where - with unflinching arrogance - she pronounced, "I don't make the film; I am the film."
Elsewhere Breillat has said there is no masculine psychology in her cinema, only the resentments and desires of women. One wonders if The Last Mistress breaks from that assertion in her loving portrait of Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aatou), with whom she admittedly identifies?
The ancient Greeks used the word hamartia - when an arrow misses its target - to signify sin. Breillat has described The Last Mistress as "the culmination of an implacable trajectory - the arrow had to reach it's target." For me, this exhibits her consummate virtuosity, by which I mean integrity. Another Greek word I could easily associate with her is enantiodromia. At what point - by staring into the perverse - does one achieve what is elegant and sublime? At what point - by indulging the visceral and the horrific - does one achieve a philosophic cerebrality? If anyone knows, it would unquestionably be Catherine Breillat.
Recovering from a dangerous brain hemorrhage at the end of 2004 that left her half paralyzed for several months, Breillat has returned to her artistry with a dazzling ferocity. The fire of trauma has lent her a searing voice of urgency. Her cinematic articulations nearly shimmer with passionate heat. Breillat strikes me as an elemental intelligence and I am reminded of Anaïs Nin's description of a friend where - upon watching her walk into a room - she wrote: "Everything will burn."
First and foremost, congratulations on your remarkable recovery and return to form. You promised that if you regained your health you would return like an atomic bomb and voila!
It's absolutely certain that I did not want to give up before making this film, which I made day for day, a year after my stroke. It was a big budget film and a huge challenge for me. The completion bond people and the insurance companies refused to insure me on this film. Now, after having made it, I'm ultra-insurable and no one has any hesitations anymore.
What is it about the shift between the 18th and the 19th centuries that you find personally appealing?
The 19th Century saw the rise to power of the bourgeoisie and industry. It was the last hurrah of the aristocracy, which - after the revolution - managed to escape and survive the disaster. But they didn't realize this was just a brief, final hurrah. The aristocracy was based on virtues of courage, virtues of talent, virtues of wit, and appreciation of the arts. This was what the fashions of the bourgeoisie changed. The glorious freedom that women enjoyed disappeared, the fashions became chaste. The rise of the bourgeoisie saw the rise of censorship and closed-mindedness. The aristocrats weren't at all like that. They believed in flair. They believed in spirit. They believed in acts of glory. For them, glory was based upon an appreciation of the arts, of acts of bravery and courage.
The Last Mistress is gloriously sumptuous. Sensuality is infused into every depth and surface of the film, with evident painterly touches of Manet and Delacroix. I understand the costumes are 18th century museum pieces you bought in Turkey? And that you filmed in locations infamous for their 18th century woodwork, such as the Salon des Singes in the Hôtel de Soubise, which has some of the most beautiful woodwork of 18th century France. Were you planning years in advance to seduce in such detail? Can you talk about how you strategized this seduction?
The silk that you see so close to the face of Asia [Argento], for example, is real handmade silk because it looks entirely different than machine-made silk. This is something I reproach in American blockbusters. To me it's so obvious that the armor that people are wearing, for example, is molded plastic. I always think to myself, "With the money they have, why don't they go to India and have something made that's authentic?" To me such inauthenticity scratches my eyes, it scorches my eyes - I just can't watch it. When I wanted to make this film, I decided to make something that wouldn't scorch my eyes, that wouldn't hurt my eyes, that I could see. It's something I believe profoundly. If I can see the difference, then the audience can see the difference.
When I was looking for a specific dress for Asia, my costume designer offered me something beige and I said, "No, it can't be beige. I want red damask silk! Not simply nylon imitation. Everything in the film has to be beautiful. Everything has to be perfect."
My production designer became very upset, for example, because there were scenes in which we had a wooden floor and he said, "Why a wooden floor? Why do you want this rather than having rugs?" I told him and my producer that I saw my film somewhere between Thérèse  - a film by Alain Cavalier, which had a very small-budget film and was shot in a very spare way where Saint Thérèse was shot in her cell in the convent in which there's absolutely nothing on the set - so somewhere between this film and Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon . The producer almost had a fit. He said, "There's no way we can do Barry Lyndon." I said, "But, yes, look at Barry Lyndon. Notice that everything in the film is perfect but there's very little in the film. You don't need a huge amount of details. You don't need a profusion of things; just the exact perfect thing for every shot. It doesn't have to look like an antique shop."
That's how it was. You don't see rugs in my film, for example, because it was impossible to find a beautiful authentic rug from that period, so I preferred to have the wooden floors rather than something that doesn't appear correct. That, to me, is essential. The period that we're dealing with is a period of refinement and my film had to be refined as well. Everything that you see in the film I bought myself - the silk, the jewelry, the tie clips, the clothing - I had amassed over a period of years and my production designer was very upset with it because of the fact that I was so obsessed by these details. The things that I bought cost a fortune but I found them at flea markets and, in fact, even though they were expensive, they're worth more being expensive than if I'd bought fake pieces.
It achieved its effect. Your audience is immersed directly into a visceral, sensual world and time. Along with your skill of choosing perfect items that resonate past themselves, the language of the film differs from your earlier films; it's richly textured and resonant with wit. You are not - it is clear - an individual who suffers the wit of the staircase. Especially in the interludes with the elder actors where they're gossiping and negotiating and philosophizing. How close to Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's novel is the language of your film?
I was extremely faithful to the novel. I was so faithful to the novel that it produced funny moments. Yolande Moreau who plays La comtesse d'Artelles, the woman who's somewhat heavier, has a scene where she's at the window and says, "Look, the sea rises." This was funny because Moreau had directed a film called When the Sea Rises and she was sure I had scripted this as a private joke and as a tribute to her film. I did nothing of the sort. I had to bring her the novel so that she could read for herself where it was explicitly written by Barbey d'Aurevilly that the Contessa is standing at the window, looks out and says, "The sea rises."
My first screen test with Fu'ad was a disaster, but the second was very good, but also funny, because he was convinced he was the only person for the part; that I couldn't choose anyone else. I told him that he was perhaps too young for the role and that I would have to think it over; that what I was looking for wasn't a realistic depiction but rather an iconic performance. Fu'ad was absolutely furious and told me that he was the only person who could play the part and the proof of that was the fact that his birthday was the same as the author Barbey d'Aurevilly, so he had to do this part. He left absolutely furious. Immediately after he left, I told my assistant to run after him, to call him, because I was convinced he was so angry that - out of despair - he would cut off his hair and I wanted him with the hair that he had. I told him that he was the dream of my life, that I had spent my whole life looking for an actor like him.
It's good you're aware of the riling effect you have on your actors. In this case, it paid off. Fu'ad Aït Aattou is a marvelous discovery and will, I'm sure, show up in many films. Returning to the language of the film, I'm glad you mentioned the coincidental irony around When the Sea Rises because I was wondering if you were purposely infusing an ironic touch; but you're telling me it's directly from the novel? What I gained - especially from the performances by the three elders - was such wonderful wit. That's what I was trying to finesse, whether that wit was in the novel or whether that was your touch?
No, those were aspects that were very much present in the novel; but when I was choosing the actors, I was looking for counter-casting, going against type. For example, Yolande Moreau, as you know, is known for her work in comedy and humorous roles. Here, I thought that she was extremely intelligent and I liked the idea of using her as La comtesse d'Artelles. Michael Lonsdale is an actor who I loved for his British sense of humor and, here again, playing a French aristocrat was unusual for him. Claude Sarraute - it's the first time that she's appeared on camera in 50 years and I loved her because of the fact that she had this innocence of a young girl. At no point do you sense any sexual desire on her part; it's just that she's subjugated by Ryno de Marigny's intelligence and beauty. She knows that he has a terrible reputation but she sees him as an angel and believes that for her cherished granddaughter, she'd prefer someone who's handsome and intelligent - even if he has a bad reputation - than someone who's going to be boring as a husband.
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