French filmmaker Catherine Breillat has plenty to smile about.  She has directed films outside the French mainstream and has proudly swum against the tide in her native France for years.  Her latest film "The Last Mistress" opened the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival last Thursday, and will open in the U.S. this summer, during which the director will turn 60.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

Is This The Face Of A Cinema Enfant Terrible?  Director Catherine Breillat Says, "Oui, Oui, Oui!"

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

April 28, 2008


It is the morning after, just twelve hours after the end of the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival's opening night last Thursday, where the film "The Last Mistress" has finished unspooling at The Castro Theater.  A period costume drama set in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the film's setting is not exactly where you'd expect to find Catherine Breillat, who has directed numerous films where contemporary women get to unapologetically express their sexuality and power on their own terms, with men as spectators falling by the wayside, either as bumbling imbeciles or tormented beings just plain incapable of using their brains to outwit their feminine opposites.  All you need to do is watch Ms. Breillat's "Romance", "Sex Is Comedy" or "36 Fillette" among others, to see women represented as fearless beings using both intellect and brawn to succeed, with sexual power plays as a paramount strategy.  Call it provocative, call it feminism, call it intellectual -- it is all Catherine Breillat, a French subject who has long been a pariah in her native land.  She will touch on her outcast status later in the conversation, which her interpreter Robert Gray assists on, translating her comments into English. 

So just what was it that brought Ms. Breillat, whose 60th birthday will come this summer, back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries with "Mistress"? 

"I've always been attracted by the 19th century, which I identify with a great deal.  The French aristocracy however was lost, was transformed even under Louis Philippe at the same time as the bourgeoisie came to rise to power," said Ms. Breillat via Mr. Gray.  "Today France is bourgeois and aside from couture French taste is execrable.  There is very little of it that I like.  To me the aristocracy represents a greatness of thought and morality, a freedom of thought and morality which is lost today.  And also a genius -- especially a greatness of thought and wit." 

The new film examines the last days of the aristocracy, and while one might be tempted to believe that the aristocratic classes in France had stiff upper lips and an air of entitlement about them is an idea that is debunked in the film and in reality.  Ms. Breillat, a polite and modest figure who now uses a cane to help herself get around, distinguished the difference between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.  "The aristocracy isn't a tradition.  It's not something that comes naturally, it's something that has to be earned.  It's earned by the value of thought, the value of courage by deeds of thought.  You see, for example in England where the Queen ennobles the subjects who have shown courage, who have shown great deeds of thought as well.  The bourgeoisie on the other hand, represents the empire of industry, an empire that is quite mediocre."

Anything but mediocre is the acting of first-time big screen performer Fu'ad Ait Aitou, who plays Ryno du Marigny, the adulterer who carries on an affair with Vellini, played by none other than Asia Argento.  He had to hurdle many challenges, not to mention one early on in his life -- he resisted the adoption of an Arab name, maintaining his French familial underpinnings.  Hence his middle name Ait (which means "of the tribe") and last name Aitou (which is the name of the tribe that he is a part of.)  Moroccan by birth, Mr. Aitou refused to adopt an Arab name -- and, as the director pointed out, colonization "isn't something that only takes place on one side."  Ms. Breillat describes how Mr. Aitou came into the cast for the film, whose original French title is "Une vielle Maitresse".  "The first time I saw him I was sitting at a sidewalk cafe with my assistant director and I saw him and pointed him out to my director and said, 'look at that, he's exactly Ryno du Marigny, the character I'm looking for.  We can do as many castings as we want . . . meet as many actors, go through all the streets of Paris looking for someone and we'll never find someone as perfect as him.'  And at that very moment he approached me and gave me his phone number, just as I was about to ask my assistant to run after him and get his phone number."

Sometimes being in the right place at the right time is beneficial, but it's what follows or develops that can be a make-or-break result.  When Mr. Aitou did his screen test the director revealed that "in fact it turned out that he was awful, and I was very displeased because he was my discovery.  I was proud of that, and here he was acting awfully -- worse than you'd see in an American TV series in France.  And I told him that when you're as handsome as you are, as an actor you have to be very good, otherwise you'll come across as someone who's stupid.  And with that, his eyes flashed with anger.  He tried again, and with this flash of anger in his eyes I understood again that I was right -- that I had chosen the right person," said Ms. Breillat.  "We did more screen tests, and then he was magnificent.  He's someone who has a great deal of pride, and by pricking his pride then I got him, I got exactly what I was looking for."

A safe assumption can be made that Catherine Breillat didn't need to prick the pride of Asia Argento during the film, even though it was more difficult to direct her than it was the neophyte Mr. Aitou.  When attuned filmgoers think of Ms. Breillat and Ms. Argento -- knowing of their backgrounds and iconoclastic status -- one would think that they naturally would have already worked together.  Yet "The Last Mistress" marks the first time that they have collaborated.  "Asia belonged to the idea that she already had of herself as an actress," said the director, in explaining why Ms. Argento was less easy to direct than the debuting Mr. Aitou, whom Ms. Breillat stated was "my creation" and therefore belonged to her.  Ms. Breillat further commented on Ms. Argento's presence and her on-set relationship with the actress during the filming of "The Last Mistress", saying that restraining the Italian performer to fit within the confines of a period drama was not an option, although a caveat was thrown in.  "It's not necessary to restrain her, on the contrary.  But it is important to bring her within the framework of what I'm trying to do.  Asia (pronounced Az-ee-ah) is a natural force of cinema but in real life she's also a wild animal.  So you don't try to tame her, but you try to adapt that energy to what you need." 

After a brief silence, the director added, "But it wasn't hard to do."

The film's costume design and production values are eye catching and mark Ms. Breillat's fascination with the period of centuries past.  "Every swath of fabric that you see in the film, every bit of lace, is authentic.  It's 19th century hand-made silk, lace or fabric that I've been buying for a period of ten years.  The oriental costumes that you see in the film I bought in Turkey 30 years ago, some of them pieces that date back to the 18th century.  They're all magnificent.  Because cinema is the art of the close-up, when you see Asia's face covered with lace then it would be absolutely horrible if the lace wasn't authentic.  The tie clips that you see in the film, the brooches, all the jewels are authentic 19th century pieces that I've been amassing for years and years.  I'm absolutely obsessed by this kind of detail," said the director.

Catherine Breillat speaks English quite well, even though her interpreter Mr. Gray ably assisted with this conversation.  While one listens to Mr. Gray's reading of the director's comments, Ms. Breillat fixes a polite and appreciative look at her interviewer, her eyes taking in the questioner's attempt to comprehend.  She isn't merely waiting for Mr. Gray to complete his reading of his written interpretation before the next question is asked; she is anything but impatient or oblivious to the process.  Some filmmakers whose first language is English occasionally make very little eye contact when giving answers to questions, but in the silence (and science) of listening Ms. Breillat speaks volumes.

Ms. Breillat next turns to a question about her pariah status in France and takes it on with relish.  "Yes, I've been a pariah.  I've been a marginal from the very beginning.  I see myself as like my (lead) character Ryno du Marigny, (of whom) Mousieur de Prony says at the end . . . 'that one day if he becomes a minister then he'll take great pride in his (un)popularity.  And that's how I see myself as well.  I see myself as belonging to the world intelligentsia and not as a member of the popular French cinema, which I have great problems with.  And I have to admit that I am someone who can be extremely arrogant, that I have a huge sense of pride and -- I have to say that I have always been, when I was criticized -- I've seen films that were done of me, video clips, interviews that were done of me years ago when I was a very young girl and (back) then when I was criticized I said, 'well I'm 20 years ahead of my time, and the future will prove me right.'"

Catherine Breillat laughs abundantly at this point, and adds, "It may be arrogant, but it's also true."

"Une vielle Maitresse" (aka "The Last Mistress") was the opening night film at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival and will be released in the U.S. beginning on June 27.  A review of the film will appear here at The Popcorn Reel on its release date.  Ms. Breillat's film was adapted by her from a novel by Jules-Amedee Barbey d'Aurevilly.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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