14 August 2007

Une Vieille Maitresse

On Sunday night, I saw Catherine Breillat's "Une Vieille Maitresse" at BIFF. Jason, still somewhat disturbed by his experience with Inland Empire the weekend before, had certain, understandable reservations about what this, my next choice of film, would be like. This wonderful novel adaptation, set during what is stressed numerously throughout the film, as the "time of Laclos", with its delightful innuendos and erotic dialogue, turned out to be very enjoyable. Afterwards, over cheesecake, we talked about the film and its strengths.

First on the menu was whether Asia had in fact had breast enlargements. Asia's numerous nude scenes, whether arched in ecstasy over the Comte de Marigny or entertwined with him in orgasmic abandon, provided ample opportunities for me to gauge this fact but sadly, I still don't know for sure!

Next, was the delightful mise-en-scene. During the very first scenes, it becomes evident, from the layers and layers of ornamental lace, the glossy silk fabrics, the russling of richly woven skirts, the intermittent crackling in the fireplace, the impressive period furniture, and the opulent dinners - that this is a hedonist's film. It is made for pleasure. The attention to detail is striking.
The absence of non-diegetic music works well as it eliminates distractions and helps to immerse oneself in the reality of the 19th century. Without the non-diegetic sounds, one can become exclusively intimate with the Parisian soirees and the melancholic country manor by the sea.

Every scene, every shot demonstrates such artful composition that I'm wondering whether this would not be France's answer to the likes of Zheng Yimou.
Asia's framing in particular inspires great artistry. There is a scene where Asia sulks in her opera box. A large lace fan covers her face, save her moody eyes. A classic beauty, she is not. But it is difficult not to linger on her for a while, if only to admire the lovely lace on her fingerless, black gloves (which I'm sure will soon cause a fury as a fashion item) and her black hair which is tightly mounted into compact bun and adorned with a dramatic Malagan mantilla and large red flower. One of her dark strands is curled and stamped on her forehead, completing her panoply of seductress.

The third thing up for discussion was the sultry Roxane Mesquida who plays Hermangarde. More specifically, we discussed the director's decision to leave Roxane's eyebrows in a dark brown (black?) color. I can understand that the actress died her hair blonde to better impress upon us the youthful Hermangarde, daughter of proper society, but the contrast between her fair mane and the dark line above her eyes was much too striking. I came to the conclusion that perhaps the purpose of these mismatched eyebrows was to better underline Hermangarde's darker thoughts. Having not read the novel, I am not certain of this fact but it is clear that her character does not turn out to be all innocent and charming as her husband had presumed. There is a final scene where husband and wife are confronting each other and she remains immured in an understandably, cold silence while he begs her to speak. Hermangarde's only reply is a calculated dark browed regard towards him in a manner that all to explicitly conveys her hatred and disgust. I suppose that the scene would have been less dramatic had the said brows been bleached. So that's for the eyebrows.

And now, for the sake of this blog, I would like to go further with Hermangarde's character. Once again, I have not read the novel but it seemed to me that she turned out more hateful than what La Vellini, prided herself to be, in a narcisstic show of her Iberian origins.

To begin, the two female characters are opposed. One is blonde with straight hair. The other has dark, unruly hair. One is considered beautiful, a true jewel of French society, while the other, "an ugly enchantress" from the seedy corners of Spain. One conforms to society while the other overtly defies social norms. One remains shy of physical demonstrations while the other's emotional balance hinges on shared sexual energy. Asia's character, La Vellini is seen by the other characters as an adventuress, her libertine ways clearly matching that of her lover's, Ryno de Marigny.

I believe that the accidental death of Vellini's daughter is central to this story. Firstly, it represents a sort of karmic re-adjustment in that it functioned according to what society's expectations were (and remains) concerning women: that they can not be courtesans as well as good mothers. The two are incompatible. And secondly, it is interesting that the disastrous effect of her child's death on Vellini's emotional balance is in direct proportion to her undying love and adoration for Count Ryno de Marigny.

And now having established that fact, I want to return to Hermangarde who it seemed to me conducted an abortion straight after she clandestinely learnt of her husband's treachery. I had to conclude that this was not a miscarriage: in the scene, she sits upright in her bed and contemplates her bloody thighs as the doctor washes her. Whether this was a planned operation or not, (and once again I have not read the novel) Hermangarde conveys absolutely no emotion and seems totally removed from her dead child. This scene contrasts sharply with Vellini's passionate mourning in the Algerian desert following her daughter's cremation. I felt that this ritually medical scene was necessary to complete the comparison between the two women and to justify Ryno de Marigny's decision to return to his lover. That is, if the symbolic meaning of the dead child can be carried further, then not only is Hermangarde not in the least attached to the fruit of her union, but she does not love Ryno De Marigny, at least not as much as La Vellini.
As a result, it seemed only correct that the film concludes soon after having informed us that Marigny has resumed his 10 year long affair with the Spanish courtesan.

Vellini's triumph marks this picture as one of the few films where the fiesty, independent, female protagonist does not suffer a reversal of fortune nor end up dead or punished by the patriarchal narrative. A pleasure to see. Well done Catherine Breillat!

Watch Asia woo the papparazi at Cannes 2007

1 comment:

Nico said...

Wow this was an excellent comment on the film. I especially agree with the last bit about Asia's character not ending up dead or punished. I watched the film not knowing who directed it but as the film progressed, I was quite sure it was a woman director. The treatment of love and fidelity was much too tender despite graphic scenes and outlandish screams. Catherine Breillat excels!
I too noticed and applauded the lack of an obvious soundtrack to lend credence to the whole period setting. This film is quite brilliant and deserves a 2nd watch