The making of a 'Mistress': Director Catherine Breillat takes a minute backstage at opening night for the San Francisco International in April. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Catherine Breillat's 'The Last Mistress'

Michael Fox July 14, 2008

In the 20 years since 36 Fillette shocked audiences with its unflinching depiction of an unhappy 14-year-old girl determined to lose her virginity on a seaside family holiday (and discovering her sexual power along the way), French author and director Catherine Breillat has carved out a reputation as a fearless provocateur. Not coincidentally, she’s a magnet for controversy, attacked in some quarters for presenting sex and the sharp-elbowed power plays between men and women in the rawest terms. But perhaps it’s the notion of a woman director pulling back the curtain on society’s ugly secrets that pushes the buttons of some critics and moviegoers, rather than the confrontational themes of works like Romance and Fat Girl. The Last Mistress, which opened the San Francisco International Film Festival in April and begins its local theatrical run Friday, is at first blush a restrained, talky drawing-room drama set in the repressed 18th century. It soon reveals itself as a fierce passion play between an independent woman (Asia Argento) and a younger man who, after 10 years, stuns her by deciding to take a wife. Breillat, still showing some of the physical effects of her 2004 stroke that delayed production of The Last Mistress, was paradoxically much more playful and cheerful this time than when she visited the festival in 2003 with Sex Is Comedy. She speaks and understands English, but we relied on a translator.

SF360: The Last Mistress strikes me as a film about the impossibility of human beings controlling their most basic impulses.

Catherine Breillat: It’s not a question of controlling one’s impulses, but rather of understanding them and expressing them with elegance.

SF360: But society wants to constrain us, yes?

Breillat: If society is constraining, then we have to free ourselves of it.

SF360: That, in a nutshell, is a central theme throughout your films.

Breillat: Of course. I think this film is the perfect example of, on the one hand, the freedom of the 18th century versus the rise of power in the 19th century of a bourgeois type of thinking that was extremely constraining. Not anymore a morality of thought but rather a moralism of prudery, the rise of this bourgeoisie that was extremely tyrannical and hypocritical. And today we see the continuation of that. I feel that even in the 20th and 21st centuries we’re still very much back in the 19th century and prisoners of it, prisoners of this Puritanism, this straight-laced, narrow-minded vision of life, not only in France but also in the United States. However, I like British Puritanism, because it is extremely elegant. I detest bourgeois Puritanism. I also admire the Puritanism of northern countries. Here we see fire and ice, very strong passions, whereas the bourgeois Puritanism is a layer of sticky honey.

SF360: I would argue that period films are always about the present, because an artist is trying to influence the times in which she or he lives. You can’t change the past. Do you find it easier or more freeing to make a film set in the past?

Breillat: I believe that even when I’m making a film about the present, I’m making films that are timeless. I’m consciously striving to make films so they’re timeless. Films that are valid not only for the present but that are valid for the past and for the future. When you’re making a fiction, you’re making films about humanity, and humanity hasn’t changed. We’ve remained humans, we haven’t turned into frogs. (Laughs)

SF360: Was there an advantage, then, to making a film set in the past? Was it more pleasurable and fun?

Breillat: In fact, what I wanted to do was to prove that it’s possible to make a period piece, a costume drama, and nonetheless remain in charge of absolutely every aspect. To make a period piece in a very craftsman-like way, in an artistic way, in which the director is in charge of everything. Usually I want to make a big-budget film, and usually in such films you delegate. There’s so much going on that you choose a costume designer, a set designer, and they take over in their respective fields. I refused that. I wanted to do everything, to have complete control of everything. I invented my actors, I chose the jewelry for them, the lace for them, every piece of clothing for them. The brooches that they were wearing. I did absolutely everything, and to me that was a huge amount of pleasure. Usually in historical films that’s not possible to be done, people don’t think that’s it’s possible to be done, and I wanted to show that you could make a historical drama the same way you make a contemporary film.

SF360: You don’t pick every detail with your contemporary films?

Breillat: Yes. I love fabric, I love choosing the fabric, and often I choose pieces of clothing without thinking of a film in particular. The red dress in Romance (1999), the wonderful red dress, I had seen it and thought that it’s from the ’30s, the ’40s, its magnificence, it’s made to appear in a movie. In "Fat Girl" (2001), the mother is played by Arsinée Khanjian, and she wears the same dress as the woman played by Isabelle Renauld in Perfect Love (1996). I found it in a flea market and thought that it would be perfect. I like the idea of objects of mine appearing from film to film, going through my work. A screen that was in Fat Girl appears in this film. There were Chinese paintings that appear from film to film. And who knows, perhaps the silver belt that you see in The Last Mistress will show up in another film. (Laughs.)

SF360: Now a question about sex.

Breillat: (Laughs.) People also reappear in other films.

SF360: In terms of showing sex onscreen, how has it changed compared to five years ago, or when you started making films, or when you began watching films?

Breillat: In fact, we’ve fallen backwards, we’ve gone backwards in time in this way. Romance was only possible to make at the very precise instant when I made it, and even television, which co-produced the film, told me they’d never be able to do that again. And that’s the reason, in fact, at the time I was first preparing to make The Last Mistress, I stopped preproduction on it and threw myself into Romance, because I felt that was the only time we could make it. And I put off making Last Mistress and indeed it was correct. Now we’ve fallen backwards, we’ve gone backwards in time, there’s no way we could do that today.

SF360: In terms of depicting sex onscreen, does it feel like 1957? That you can’t show it?

Breillat: (Laughs) No, no, when I shoot a film it’s the same sexual emotion, whether the sex is explicit or not. Nonetheless there’s a sexual emotion that’s communicated. In 1957, that wasn’t the case. We were dealing with a cinema of convention, not of feeling.

SF360: I’m convinced that your films are not about sex per se, but about power. In your opinion, who has more power, men or women?

Breillat; At first, it’s the man who’s in control, who has the most power, but what scares them so much is that then the women take over. Women at first are the objects of men, are possessed by men, but afterwards the roles are reversed and men become the objects of women. And that’s what’s so difficult for them to accept. It’s so magnificent to see this exchange of power, where the man at first appears to be so strong and in control and gradually this is reversed and it’s the woman who has the upper hand. That’s magnificent to see in a loving relationship and it’s also a very generous act.

SF360: On whose part?

Breillat: It’s generous in terms of the loving impulse itself. That’s what’s so magnificent, is you see this exchange between them, and that’s what makes the loving relationship, the amorous relationship, so human. This generosity makes us human, where the stronger accepts to be the weaker. It also allows us to go beyond the realm of the animal, where it’s the law of the strongest, the law of power, and become human. And human is the law of the spirit, the law of the mind. One accepts to acknowledge the strength or the power of the mind over mere physical strength. That’s precisely the image of King Kong, who is holding in his hand this tiny woman, as big as an ant. And he sees the femme fatale, he is fascinated by her, and because of that he passes from the stage of being simply a huge, powerful ape to becoming human, and that’s what’s so fascinating and so moving.

SF360: By way of closing, are you surprised that your films, which are so quintessentially French in their themes, have found an audience on this side of the Atlantic?

Breillat: In fact, it’s the other way around. Ever since 36 Fillette (1988), which did much better in New York than it did in Paris, all of my films since then have done much better in the United States, and in all Anglo-Saxon countries, than in France. I don’t know why, but I’m very grateful for it.