Asia Argento Rising

No flesh in the pan, Argento erupts as a dazzling director as well as actor

Critics balked so hard they verbally barfed ("execrable," "unwatchable," "overbearing," "vile beyond redemption"), but filmmakers recognized an exquisite resource. Gus Van Sant gave her a cameo in Last Days as a thong-wearing phantom haunting a crypto-Cobain mansion; George Romero armed her against the zombie menace in Land of the Dead, and Sofia Coppola cast her, brilliantly, as the Comtesse du Barry in Marie Antoinette (2006), which served as a test run for Asia's monumental performance in The Last Mistress.

"A courtesan on the wane," per society gossip, "and very vulgar, I hear," Lady Vellini is rumored to be the "illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a famed Spanish matador, [who] led a shady life in Seville before being rescued by a marriage to a wealthy English baronet." She is introduced as an odalisque, horizontal on a daybed as she greets her long-time lover, the aristocratic Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou). When she rises, the movie rises with her—alert, on guard, tumescent. The Last Mistress tells, in flashback, of the explosive affair between these two, starting from Vellini's intractable dismissal of de Marigny's advances, proceeding through a duel for her affections that leaves him wounded but alive, on to a lightning reversal of mind that brings her lips to his hairless chest, sucking his blood in amorous rapture.

Critic Amy Taubin has chastised male critics who, bewildered by Argento's volcanic dynamism, resort to language ("creature," "force of nature," "volcanic dynamism," etc.) that strips her of will. That's exactly right: Argento may be a conduit for massive energies, but she determines the course and point of release. Vellini isn't passively in thrall to a cataract of passion; she evaluates options, sizes up sentiments, thinks through implications, then acts on a choice. When she goes, she goes all the way. The extreme distances crossed by Argento, her dauntless reach beyond the boundaries of comfort and taste, may give vent to vast intuitive resources, but they're powered by hard-earned, fully conscious prerogative. "Some may see her as a creature," says de Marigny, "but she's a woman of great nobility."

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