A confrontational filmmaker, Catherine Breillat has often been unfairly and violently reviled simply for taking a brutally honest look at sexuality. Her past work, including Romance (1999), Fat Girl (A ma soeur!, 2001) and Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l’enfer, 2004) always offers a provocative, radical questioning of traditional views of female sexuality. Her latest, The Last Mistress (Une vieille maÃ®tresse), is somewhat of a departure. Adapted from a novel by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, it is Breillat’s first costume drama and has an unashamedly romantic tone. It centres on the impossibly handsome Ryno de Marigny, a dissolute dandy striving to disentangle himself from a passionate ten-year relationship with his earthly Spanish mistress Vellini, in order to be allowed to marry the rich and pretty Hermangarde. We were able to talk to Catherine Breillat at last year’s London Film Festival, where she told us about dandies and femmes fatales, her fraught relationship with the French press and how her new film differs from her previous work. Fully recovered from the stroke she suffered before she started shooting the film, she was as sharp and lively an interviewee as ever.
Virginie Sélavy: The Last Mistress is your first costume drama – how did you approach it?
Catherine Breillat: First of all, I fell in love with the novel. I think that if I’d lived in his century I would obviously have been Barbey d’Aurevilly.
VS: Why obviously?
CB: Because he was a dandy, and because his work was censored.
VS: Is that something you identify with?
CB: Yes, and it’s clear that in the film I identified with the role of Ryno.
VS: Ryno rather than any of the female characters?
CB: It’s an autobiographical book, Barbey d’Aurevilly is Ryno de Marigny. I’ve always dressed as a dandy, I’ve always liked androgyny, and I wanted to film a boy who would have the beauty of a girl.
VS: This is something that recurs throughout your work. In Anatomy of Hell, Rocco Siffredi has a position that is almost feminine.
CB: He was very criticised for that in France! They asked him, ‘why did you let Catherine Breillat boss you around?’ In France, he’s a star, but as a stud who reinforces men’s idea of pure masculinity. So the fact that he let me feminise him… He replied, ‘because I like to be dominated by Catherine Breillat’. Rocco likes porn films and Pasolini. He loves cinema and he’s much more intelligent than people think.
VS: You offer a very blunt, honest, adult reflection on sexuality, so it’s strange that it seems to disturb so many critics.
CB: French critics are not so bad now. Although with Anatomy of Hell, one of them wrote a piece in a French paper that was presented as the announcement of my death. It was over two pages and the title said, ‘To Be Done With Catherine Breillat’. It was very violent.
VS: I don’t think that the critics would have been so shocked and would have reacted so virulently if it’d been the work of a male filmmaker. Do you think that it is the fact that you are a woman that disturbs people so much?
CB: Yes, definitely. In painting terms, I’m not Marie Laurencin, I’m Soutine or Bacon. And that’s what’s unbearable to them. Marie Laurencin is an esteemed painter but she paints pretty things. I find beauty in violence and brutality, and that doesn’t fit with the image of a woman. Claire Denis is another filmmaker who doesn’t mince her words, who is more brutal than a man. But she came after me, so she was lucky! At the same time too much aggressiveness prompts other people to defend you passionately. That’s why I don’t want to say that all critics badmouth me. Some of them do, like the one who wrote the death announcement piece. I met him after I’d had the stroke. He was coming out of my producer’s office where he’d done an interview for another film. I said, ‘ah, it’s you? All I do is make films! Why do you need to express so much hate, like a criminal, like a murderer?’ And as I was still half-paralysed, I said, ‘you see, I’m still alive! And I’ll still be around to piss you off! I’ll survive you!’ He was livid!
But in reality, I’m also very arrogant. In the film, the Vicomte de Prony says, ‘what I like in Monsieur de Marigny is that if he ever becomes Minister, he will make a point of being unpopular’. And I think I’ve always been like this. I’ve always provoked what I’m complaining about now, so in reality I’m not complaining about it. I need opposition to construct myself against.
VS: The tone of The Last Mistress is very different from that of your previous films, it’s a lot less belligerent. It seems that you’re not trying to break taboos so much in this film.
CB: But I’ve never wanted to break taboos, I simply want to go through them. Taboos are like initiatory doors. So it’s quite the opposite, I like to create taboos, to know where they are. I do like to go beyond the limits. That’s what I see as my work.
VS: In one of the reviews of The Last Mistress, a journalist said that it’s a feminist revision of the myth of the femme fatale. Is that how you see it?
CB: Everything was in the book, including the conversations between the Contesse d’Artelles et the Marquise de Flers, when they analyse how you have to manipulate a man, which are indeed very feminist. I knew that people would say I’d written this but it’s in the book, it was written by Barbey d’Aurevilly. However, I have explored the myth of the femme fatale. Vellini is the femme fatale, she’s a ‘flamenco’ character, she comes from Seville, but I approached her through the vamps of the 30s and 40s, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth; and also Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu créa la femme, she has that singular sexual freedom, the freedom to provoke desire knowingly, which caused a scandal when the book came out, and later when Bardot made the film.
VS: Was it difficult to deal with that type of character? Were you worried that it might fall into a Carmen type of cliché?
CB: But what is fiction, if not a series of clichés in which people see themselves? We all live the same lives and if we can still read very old books it’s because they have fixed fictional types in which we can recognise ourselves. It’s not a convention, it’s a type of reference to oneself. The commonplace is precisely the place in which everyone recognises themselves. I’ve worked a lot on the commonplace. People have said that Virgin [36 fillette, 1988] was full of clichés, of things that people already knew. But that’s not true, it was about what people never show.
VS: Why did you choose Asia Argento for the role of Vellini?
CB: I thought that the flamenco character had to be a rock’n’roll character in our times. She had to have a very sexual, provocative side, but also be very androgynous. Rock’n’roll women are both feminine and masculine. They are aggressively sexual, like Bardot in Et Dieu créa la femme, and at the same time, unlike Bardot, who was really a woman, they are masculine, like Marlene Dietrich, smoking cigarettes dressed in a suit. In Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel, Vellini smokes the cigar.
VS: For this film you’ve also worked again with Roxanne Mesquida for the third time. Do you like working with actors that you already know?
CB: No, with actors I have invented! It’s not just that I know them, I made them! It is true that I’ve made three films with Roxanne. As soon as she entered the casting room for Fat Girl, I said to my assistant, ‘you see her, she’s mine, you can stop the casting’. With Fu’ad [Ait Aattou] it was the same thing. He wasn’t an actor. He was sitting at the terrace of a café and when he got up I pointed at him and said to my assistant, ‘this is Ryno de Marigny, that’s exactly it’. I wanted my assistant to run after him and ask for his phone number because I thought we would never be able to find him again! But Fu’ad came straight towards me, maybe because I had so obviously pointed at him, and said he’s seen Romance and really liked it and he gave me his phone number. But he didn’t do it in a subservient way, he did it with this magnificent pride that he has.
VS: You have described Anatomy of Hell as ‘the end of a necessary cycle’.
CB: Yes, I had to take it to the end, I couldn’t have made The Last Mistress, which is essentially a crowd-pleaser, if I hadn’t done Anatomy, which was the worst film I could make.
VS: Why that idea of a necessary cycle?
CB: Because films are necessary to my life. If I didn’t make films I wouldn’t live. I’m only alive when I make films, when I write or when I talk about cinema. When I stop doing that, I feel like an invalid. My daily life is terrible. Daily life is not real life; real life is cinema, literature, and running around the world talking about my films.
VS: What did Anatomy of Hell represent for you personally?
CB: Daring to do what I hadn’t dared to do in Romance, which is to show the reality of the sexual organ. In Romance, the character talks about her face and about her vulva while looking at herself in the mirror, and the mirror should have been between her legs, instead of reflecting the pubic triangle, which is now completely accepted and politically correct. It was the sexual organ that repulses and horrifies that I wanted to film. And I didn’t do it because I was a coward and it was that cowardice that I had to transgress. So I made Anatomy of Hell for that reason. I filmed a hairy horrifying/horrified vulva, like the face of the Medusa. It was not about a real sexual organ, but about this world-wide fantasy of the vulva as a horrifying thing.
VS: Did your stroke have any influence on The Last Mistress?
CB: None at all. What changed in relation to my previous films was that I finally understood that the power of a filmmaker is very abstract. Now I know how to control a film without giving orders. I don’t think I could have kept control of the set designers, the costume designers, etc, before, but with this I made the film exactly the way I wanted. I often had half of the set removed because it was just too busy and you couldn’t see the essential anymore. Apart from that, the only thing that my stroke changed is that the insurers don’t want to insure me anymore!
VS: Do you think that The Last Mistress opens a new cycle?
CB: No, I only referred to a cycle that ended with Anatomy so that people who are scared of my films would understand that this one is less esoteric and more watchable. Usually, my films do well until the 6pm screening, then at 8pm attendance dives and while all the other films generally do better at the weekend, mine crash. So I wanted to say that this film was different from the others, where people were scared to go with their family or their wives, that this film could be seen in a respectable fashion… it’s for all audiences! (laughs)
VS: The tone in The Last Mistress is definitely much softer than in your previous films.
CB: Of course, since it’s a very romantic novel. So it seems softer, but it’s still a film made by me, so it’s not that soft. To get out of the enclosed drama that is my specialty I needed the help of a novelist who can build a work as an orchestral piece. What I do is chamber music – pardon the pun – and The Last Mistress is an orchestral piece.