Early in The Last Mistress, a quietly sinister period drama based on Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's scandalous 19th-century novel, a pair of old gossips discuss the engagement of a virginal aristocrat to a notorious libertine. They worry the naïve young woman is overmatched, but more ruinous still is the possibility of love: "In love," one says, "the first to suffer has lost." And with that, all the film's period trappings can no longer hide the act that we're in the world of Catherine Breillat, the French director behind Fat Girl, Romance, and other frank chronicles of bedroom politics. For Breillat, love and exploitation go hand in glove, because the more people give themselves over to each other, the more vulnerable they become. And once two people share that lasting a connection, a power struggle intensifies and the real suffering begins.

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It's a deeply pessimistic way of thinking, but The Last Mistress doesn't sink into the crude didacticism that mars some of Breillat's work. As much as anything, it's about the stain of experience and the inescapability of one's romantic history. When dashing libertine Fu-ad Aît Aattou courts a young, uncomplicated beauty played by Roxane Mesquida, he does so in part to wrest himself from a thorny past that won't let him go so easily. For the past decade, Aattou has been immersed in an on-again/off-again relationship with the tempestuous Asia Argento, a Spaniard whom a friend once described as "a capricious flamenca who can outstare the sun." Aattou has tried to put an end to their love-hate affair, but Argento won't fade so quietly into the woodwork.

Given their reputations as feminist provocateurs, the coming together of Breillat and Argento seems natural, even inevitable, and The Last Mistress gets a charge from their feisty, uncompromising spirit. Though Argento's full-barreled performance hits some bum notes, her utter lack of reserve stands out as both reckless and courageous against the social rigors of Parisian high society. She's both relentless in pursuing Aattou and powerless to quell her self-destructive impulses; when she talks of the "bottomless abyss" of their caresses, it's the perfect distillation of Breillat's feelings about relationships. For her, love opens the door to jealousy, humiliation, and bone-deep pain, and it isn't easy to close.