IFC Films
Asia Argento as La Vellini and Fu'ad Ait Aattou as Ryno de Marigny in a scene from the new film "The Last Mistress."

THE LAST MISTRESS — ** — Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aattou; in French, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (sex, nudity, vulgarity, brief gore, violence, mild profanity, slurs, brief drugs)

If American filmgoers have any prior knowledge of actress Asia Argento's work, it's because of movies like "xXx," "Marie Antoinette" and "George A. Romero's Land of the Dead."

However, one of those indicated she had something like "The Last Mistress" in her. She's easily the best thing in this French period drama, a rather talky (and somewhat explicit) adaptation of the well-regarded Jules-Amedee Barbey d'Aurevilly novel.

Screenwriter/director Catherine Breillat's take on the tale has a definite feminist slant to it, which may explain why the male characters come off so badly. And unfortunately, sometimes that makes it dull.

Argento does impress as the title character, though. She's a Spanish divorcee named Vellini, who has been carrying on a relationship for a decade with a would-be French aristocrat named Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou).

Ryno has recently broken off their relationship, and is now planning to marry a virtuous and rich young woman, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). But questions about his character remain, so he feels he has to explain his to her grandmother/protector (Claude Sarraute).

Breillat's faulty story structure necessitates that certain scenes be told through flashbacks, and her use of that device is clunky and tiresome. Of course, it would be more tolerable if we had a more interesting storyteller than doe-eyed newcomer Aattou, who is pretty vacant.

The same certainly can't be said of Argento, whose Vellini is feisty, fiery and utterly watchable. If she and the often-controversial Breillat (1999's "Romance") do work together after this, she should insist on being the sole focus instead of having to share time.

"The Last Mistress" is not rated but would probably receive an R for scenes of simulated sex and other sexual contact, full female and partial male nudity, sexually suggestive language and references, brief gore and blood, some brief violence (a pistol duel, as well as some violence against women), scattered, mild profanity (mostly religiously based), derogatory slurs and language, and brief drug content (use of a hookah). Running time: 115 minutes.

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