Claude Sarraute as La marquise de Flers is absolutely delectable. The scene where she is supine and languid, sipping her port, listening to Ryno de Marigny's confessions, is a brilliant image that will stay with me forever.
Those are moments I invent on set; sudden inspirations that strike me. Working with Claude Sarraute was a pleasure because she inspired these inventions on set. Having her drink port during that scene struck me as something that an old lady like her would do. The props master brought some apple juice out and I said, "No, that's not the right color for a port. It's not what it looks like." I told Claude how to act and what I wanted her to do and she was absolutely thrilled at the idea of drinking the port. I wanted her to take a little sip before she sat down again and she was thrilled because this is something that she would do herself, something that suggests her pleasures of the flesh.
There's a wonderful longbody aesthetic in that scene. They often say that communication leapfrogs over generations so that an elderly lady like La marquise de Flers and a young rake like Ryno de Marigny would have more in common than at first imagined. Perhaps, as you say, there was no sexual desire on her part but the scene is warmed by the glowing embers of eroticism. It was, in fact and far away, my favorite seduction in the film.
La marquise de Flers admits that she belongs to the century of Choderlos de Laclos and Dangerous Liaisons. She feels this marriage she has arranged will be her masterpiece. France has a gift for analyzing amorous feelings and relationships. The French are under the illusion that, through understanding and intelligence, one can master the amorous impulses, which of course is absolutely impossible.
Such folly! I'm proof of that! [Laughter.] Along with these three wonderful elder characters that you've painted for us, you've also given us the volcanic Asia Argento as Vellini. I see in Asia's performance the presence of Marlene Dietrich's Concha Perez, let alone Dietrich's trademark gender fluidity, especially when Vellini dresses as a stable boy at the duel. You melded her with Orientalist paintings and the celluloid vamps of early cinema. How did you and Asia coordinate the construction of this fabulous creature?
To come back to the look of everything, the novel specifies that Vellini looks like no one else, that she dresses like no one else of the time. I thought to myself, "What does that mean in the 19th century?" It means that we can't portray her in the way that other people look like in the 19th century. That means I was absolutely free to make of her the fantasy I wanted to create. My fantasy was to make her look like a vamp of 1940s cinema. My costume designer and the woman who did my makeup and the woman who did the hair were absolutely scandalized because they said such a woman didn't exist. The woman who did the hair was a specialist of 19th century coiffeur and was horrified because she said this wasn't how hair was done. But I said that Vellini couldn't look like other people. I wanted her as a vamp.
In the same way, the costume designer was horrified that we gave Vellini the décollté of the vamp; but I told them all, "Who was the greatest and most beautiful Spanish woman of all time?" It was Marlene Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman! - a blonde German woman playing a Spanish woman - which proves that in cinema you can do what you want; you can impose your vision on a film. It proves the dominance of fantasy over realism. They were all horrified that I gave Vellini this 1940s bob with the spit curls over her forehead. They insisted it wasn't 19th century, but again, since she could look like no one else in the 19th century, I thought this was appropriate.
I was inspired as well by Goya's painting of the Duchess of Alba where you see Vellini doing up her hair at her morning toilette. There's a scene in the film that's like that, which I like very much. There's also a painting by Coubert of a Sicilian woman, which I like very much and which inspired the costumes and the gloves that Vellini wears at the lighthouse. We had very little money to do a costume drama like this. It's interesting, because there's always the problem of money. If you have enough money, then you think, "Okay, we're going to shoot in the church and we'll have 500 extras." My thought is that I didn't have enough money so let's find other ways of doing it. It's much more amusing. Instead of 500 extras, I'll use 26 extras. If you have 500 extras on a scene, that's the equivalent of spending approximately $1.5 million dollars to do that shot. That's silly. Instead I used two shots of the church scene. It's true that by using two different sets it's slightly more expensive. But on the one hand, you have the shot of the monumental doors of the church where they're going inside and then you cut into a much smaller church. Instead of using 500 extras, I can get away with using 26 extras. I thought that was much more challenging and amusing.
In the novel as well, Vellini and Ryno de Marigny set off on a long trip to different countries, but - because of the way that regional funding is set up in France - I received funding from Brittany and the Île-de-France region of Paris. So I wasn't allowed to shoot anywhere other than those two areas. How, then, was I going to show this huge trip they went on? Well, in Brittany, I decided I would base the film on paintings by Delacroix with his Oriental themes. I decided to shoot them on a dune in Brittany and that would stand in for Algeria. I recreated Algeria with one sand dune and one goat. We built a hut and this looks like Algeria. Today, we could all jump in a plane and go to Algeria but it was much more amusing and entertaining for me to create Algeria with the means that I had and my fantasies.
My training was in the Maya culture of Central America and they have a concept called chu'lel which expresses the dangerous, invisible and sacred power of blood. In your films you have used blood repeatedly and in various ways. In The Last Mistress there is, of course, the tremendous and outrageous scene where Vellini rushes to lick the blood in Ryno's wound. What does blood mean to you? Why do you use it as a frequent motif?
In Barbey d'Aurevilly's novel the sense of this passionate spell that the two lovers cast on each other derives from the fact that they mix their blood in that scene where Vellini cuts herself as well, so blood is at the center of the novel. It's true that I love blood and that blood is in all of my films but I can't say exactly why. In the scene with the mirror where she cuts her neck, I wanted the blood to look like a coral necklace and I spent a lot of time with the person who was in charge of special effects. I didn't want her to simply bleed like a chicken with huge spurts of blood - but I wanted the blood to be, again, a frightening and magnificent presence, to make it look like a coral necklace. It's true that I'm fascinated with blood. I'm not sure exactly what it represents to me, but I love the idea that beneath this white skin of ours there's flowing this sumptuous, magnificent, very deep red fluid.
In The Last Mistress when Ryno is recuperating from his wound, he drinks the glass of blood just as the male did in Anatomy of Hell. Finally, the porcelain cup that Ryno drinks from is something that I found and bought that's a magnificent little cup with Italian angels on it. For me blood is also a modern painting. It reminds me of Jackson Pollock's work where paint is splattered and accumulates. In films, blood is the epitome of modern painting at its greatest. I love this kind of image. I love blood. I'm not sure what it is, but I love it.
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