Tuesday, April 29, 2008

SFIFF51: THE LAST MISTRESS—Opening Night Q&A With Catherine Breillat

Frail, yet radiantly self-amused, Catherine Breillat admitted to being moved by Graham Leggat's introductory remarks and expressed her pleasure to be back in San Francisco. By way of her own introduction to SFIFF51's opening night presentation of The Last Mistress at the Castro Theatre, Breillat stated that it was true when she made the film that she wasn't sure if it was legitimate for her to present a costume drama after the kinds of films she's more customarily known for; but, it involved a subject that's intrigued her for some time.

Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, the author of Une vieille maîtresse upon which Breillat has based her film, was a great romantic and a dandy, subject to censorship and attacked by the authorities. Naturally, Breillat identifies with him. The Last Mistress presents the last hurrah of the 18th Century French aristocracy just before the advent of the 19th Century bourgeoisie. This is a period Breillat feels keenly attached to. As the Marquise de Flers proclaims in the film, "I am furiously aristocratic", Breillat herself feels furiously 18th century.

Hoping her audience will derive as much pleasure from watching the film as she derived making it, Breillat likewise hoped that—after seeing the film—the audience would retain Leggat's complimentary remarks. Though many rushed off to attend the opening night party at the Metreon, those who remained were charmed and attentive.

Leggat began the questioning before opening it up to the audience. He said he was surprised to learn that Fu'ad Ait Aatou—the young actor who played the libertine Ryno de Marigny—had never acted in front of a camera. Breillat recalled when she first spotted Fu'ad sitting in a café. She pointed him out to her assistant and proclaimed, "There is the Marquis de Marigny!" She was just about to send her assistant over to secure his name and contact information when—"miraculously" on his own—Fu'ad provided his cell phone number. Casting for The Last Mistress, Breillat had been trying to find an actor comparable to Alain Delon in Visconti's The Leopard. Unfortunately, French cinema no longer has anyone like Alain Delon, but—when she saw Fu'ad in the café—she knew he was exactly what she was looking for.

Noting that—other than for Michael Lonsdale and Asia Argento—the cast for The Last Mistress included several non-actors, Leggat enquired after Claude Sarraute, daughter of the famous French writer Nathalie Sarraute. Breillat admitted loving working with non-professionals. After they work with her, after their first appearance on screen, she feels she has created them, molded them, they belong to her, and she makes them her own. "I like to compare myself to a painter," she explained. "A real painter creates his own colors—he does not go to the store to buy paint in tubes. If he paints this way, his colors are less intense."

"And Asia?" Leggat teased wickedly, "Did you make her your own?" "Bien sûr!" Breillat responded without missing a beat; but, conceded that—even though audiences will see other Asias in the festival this year—in The Last Mistress, Asia is hers. On the subject of the infamously feisty Argento, Leggat asked if the first order of business for each shooting day was dragging Asia out of whatever club she'd been in the night before? Breillat laughed. Yes, that was true; but—once Asia arrived on the set—she gave herself entirely with full concentration. She is amazingly generous in front of the camera. The first scene they shot with her was the one by the sea wall where she throws herself backwards. "You have to understand that when we were shooting that scene", Breillat pointed out, "there was no safety net, no one underneath to catch her if she fell, nothing. She just threw herself backward with such abandon and with complete trust." This was how she worked throughout the film, generous with her movements, and—if she has many vices, she also has many fine qualities. Enough said.

Leggat then opened the questioning up to the audience.

In an interview conducted for the Criterion DVD release of Fat Girl, Breillat was asked how she made the film and quickly interjected that she does not "make" the film—her technicians "make" the film—she is the film! With The Last Mistress, Breillat projects herself into the character of Ryno de Marigny, much like the novelist d'Aurevilly who likewise projected himself into the young character, even as he wrote the character of the Vicomte de Prony as himself as an older gentleman. Barbey d'Aurevilly has the Vicomte de Prony say about Ryno de Marigny: "Even if he becomes a minister, he will take great pride in the fact that he's unpopular." And that's how Breillat sees herself in France. She sees her glory in being unpopular.

Asked if she was born a provocateuse or if something happened in her life to make her a provocateuse, Breillat explained that what happened was that she was born a woman. "To do what I wanted to do, I had to be provocative."

Asked if there was anything in The Last Mistress with which she was dissatisfied, Breillat countered, "Self-criticism isn't one of my strong points."

Breillat's inspiration for the wedding piece was that she loved the idea of mixing St. Matthew with St. Paul because they say exactly opposite things. St. Matthew uses the image of Christ as the model for newlyweds to follow whereas St. Paul's admonitions prove more self-congratulatory. Breillat has always hated St. Paul.

Did she hesitate about ending the film so resignedly? Did the novel end similarly? Did she ever consider having Vellini and Ryno kill each other rather than prolong their affair? The woman questioning the film's "resolution" qualified that, perhaps Americans prefer something more violent, less resigned? The ending of the film is exactly the same as the novel, Breillat advised and added that—as far as what Americans are willing to accept—"Here in America, you have the example of Hilary and Bill Clinton." That won a hilarious round of applause.

Though asked how she filmed Asia, Breillat countered that she found it much more interesting to talk about how she filmed Fu'ad Ait Aatou. Both actors were extremely jealous of each other. This was fine with Breillat. She never likes her actors to get along too famously because she gets the impression they escape her influence. Fu'ad's people come from the desert and they're quite modest. He definitely didn't want to do the love scene. Breillat assured him that they wouldn't show his penis and that it would be covered. Both actors were concerned about the love scene where Ryno throws Vellini onto her back. Breillat accomplished it with a single take; feeling no need to push for a second take. "Contrary to what people say about me, I respect my actors." Asia was very happy with Breillat's direction and said she was rarely directed as a real actress. She was happy with how the film was shot.

But there were problems on set. Fu'ad—who was supposed to be a great lover—didn't know how to kiss well and so Breillat had to show him how. She took Asia into her arms and kissed her, demonstrating to Fu'ad how it should be done. Fu'ad said an American director would never dream of doing that; but, he was humbled by the experience and did his best after that. "I'm a very physical director," Breillat commented, "and I like showing my actors exactly what I want them to do. In these scenes, I always play the boy of the couple and my male assistant—as you may have seen in Sex Is Comedy—plays the girl. Men and boys are much more modest than women. For them it's a bit of an affront to their masculine pride if they see a woman playing their role. Then they feel they have to do better."

Onstage photo by SF360 photographer Pamela Gentile. Cross-published on Twitch.