By Karina Longworth
In her two films at the 2007 New York Film Festival, Asia Argento plays two sexual outlaws, two centuries apart. In Catherine Breillat’s "The Last Mistress," she’s a kept woman who can’t keep away from her now-married former lover; in Abel Ferrara’s "Go Go Tales," she’s a stripper and a whore. In Ferrara’s film, she cavorts with a wild dog on stage, for cash; in Breillat’s, Argento is the wild dog, in spite of her money and title, and she clutches the head of a tiger while in the throes of orgasm as if to prove it. In both films, Argento is tough and toxic; her body is on display constantly and yet there’s a never a sense that she’s in anything less than total control. In both films, Argento is at once ultra-feminine and masculine, sexy and “scary”, in a way that maybe hasn’t been seen on screen to this extent since the height of Marlene Dietrich.
In fact, "The Last Mistress" feels very much like a Dietrich film, with various themes and plot threads borrowed from "The Blue Angel" and "Morocco." Breillat’s method of directing actors is also not totally dissimilar to that of the director who made Dietrich’s Hollywood career, Josef Von Sternberg, in that both tend to privlege physical choeography over the development of a character’s inner life. But saying that Argento plays the Dietrich role in "Go Go Tales" is essentially like imagining the gorilla suit number from "Blonde Venus" digitally inserted into the middle of "42nd Street." Ferrara’s made an almost happy-go-lucky glorification of sleaze, with Argento as its dark heart.
"The Last Mistress" is based on a 19th-century novel by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, but it references 18th-century writer Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the author of the source material that became fodder for both Stephen Frears’ "Dangerous Liasons" and Milos Forman’s "Valmont." The early sections of "Mistress" are full of the kind of theatrical exposition that fuels Laclos’ catty Age of Enlightment roundelay, wherein anyone over the age of thirty seemingly spends the bulk of their days at conspiratorial teas, working with their peers to engineer the formation or dissolution of a younger couple. In this case, the events are set in motion when the Vicomte de Prony discovers that dandy-about-town Ryno de Marigny is due to marry a blonde, barely legal wisp named Hermangarde, who happens to be the granddaughter of Prony’s wife’s best friend, the Marquise de Flers. This comes as something of a shock to Prony, who knows that Ryno has been having an affair with a Spanish harlot named Vellini (Argento) for ten years. Searching for reassurance that the known rake Ryno is ready to commit to her granddaughter (or, perhaps, looking to gauge the likelihood that he’s not), the marquise invites Ryno into her drawing room, and over a long night of port and flattery, coaxes Ryno into divulging the story of him and Vellini.
Early into Ryno’s flashback, he’s warned by a friend that Vellini is “a bit … moorish.” At the very least, she’s tacky and indiscreet, a coarse bit of exotica made barely respectable by the title milked through her much-older British husband. She prances around the parlors of polite French society clad in gauzy peasant dresses and gypsy shawls, all vulgar come-on but for the smitten Ryno, no pay off. Everything about Vellini seems to point to the horrors of female excess, the standard issue the-girl-can’t-help-it movie temptresss, until her husband and would-be lover meet to duel for her affections. Against her husband’s wishes, Vellini comes to watch, dressed as a stable boy. Spotting the object of his affection under a riding cap, the girlishly pretty Ryno is delighted, flattered that Vellini “came to watch me die.”
It’s the closest Breillat gets to directly referencing a Dietrich-like androgyny, but it colors the whole film. Dietrich’s allure was not based in (feminine) excess, but in (masculine) restraint. The implication was that this made her even more sexually excessive: Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo reads as a female body with a male sex drive in place of typically feminine emotional preoccupations. In "The Last Mistress," Argento has to dress like a boy in order for her affair with Ryno–which we are read as an apex of passion for both, if not the most intensely passionate affair in all of 19th-century France–can commence.
"Mistress" is by turns swoony and silly, but for Breillat, it’s fairly restrained. The exception is a gut-wrenching scene near the beginning of the second act, in which Vellini attempts to recover from a tragedy by mounting Ryno for a dose of trauma sex. Breillat shoots the bulk of this scene with the camera fixed on Argento’s thick mane of hair swirling around her bare, bouncing breasts. This shot led me to get involved in a number of arguments after the film’s NYFF press screening, in regards to the authenticity of the actress’ endowment. Even after fierce debate with several noble minds, I still maintain that they look fake, and if I’m right, Breillat’s choice to glorify their fakeness would be very Sternbergian. Alexander Walker is just one of many who note Sternberg’s tendency to either “sectionalize Dietrich and let a part of her imply the mood of the rest of her”, or else obstruct the camera’s view of Dietrich through decorational artifce, leading Walker to conclude, “no secret ever came as well shrouded as Dietrich.” If "The Last Mistress" is, as I believe, a not-completely-straight faced tragedy about female desire-as-disease, than what could more literally function as both weapon and shield than an artificial armor of saline?
Perhaps ironically, Argento’s guns get quite a bit more screen time in Breillat’s period movie than they do in Ferrara’s strip club flick. "Go Go Tales" begins with a masteful opening montage, a tour through mid-range topless joint Ray Ruby’s Paradise that’s at once claustrophobic and seductive, a swirl of bodies and money and establishing action. Ray, played by William Defoe, is co-owner and full-time manager, and every night he does a song and dance to introduce his girls. Pretending to be wowed by their steely gazes and ocupationally sufficient physiques, he tosses out faux-enthusiastic stock assessments: “I’m a lucky man.”
Actually, he’s not: a dedicated gambler, he’s just sunk the dough he needs to pay back rent on the club into a lottery ticket scam. Part of Ferrara’s gag is that every one in the club wants to be somewhere else–the girls are just stripping until their careers in ballet and magic come together–with the exception of its propriotor. Ray is nothing if not a careerist: his dream is not to get rich and cash it all in and make a run for it, but to strike just enough lucky breaks to ultimately break even and maintain the status quo.
"Go Go Tales" is probably the most lovingly photographed stripper movie of all time, but it’s most exciting in the friction it finds between the gaga dream gaze of the patrons, and the behind-the-scenes scrambling that supports it. Ray’s girls seem a little high-concept for a club that’s half dead on a Thursday night; one does a "Lolita" routine, another wears a silver jumpsuit borrowed from "Barbarella." Initially, the whole thing feels more Alexander McQueen than Scores, but then the camera gets close enough to the glitter-encrusted thighs that you can see traces of cellulite. Wobbles and all, to call it a love letter to the profession would be understatement. The club–hell, the world–is falling apart all around them, but Ferrara, in all his creepy old man benevolence, telegraphs a tangible feeling of escape and relief. If the whole thing is just an excuse for Ferrara to string along a handful of rosy-hued memories on a tether of tits … that’s okay. It plays like he’s earned it.
Ferrara’s hermetic world bears more than a few traces of Depression Era musicals. Like the girls of "Gold Diggers of 1933," dirt poor but singing “We’re in The Money”, Ray’s girls have a lot of what it takes to get along, but they’re working for men who can barely scrape together enough coin to guarantee the set. And as in "Goldiggers," it’s not long before the landlord comes and threatens to shut the show down for good. Remarkably, this landlord is more easily bought off than any Busby Berekely rent collector. In the body of the great Sylvia Miles, she’s a cackling ogre in some burlesque of Chanel. She warns she could sell the building to “fucking Bed Bath and Beyond” any minute, then takes up residence on a bar stool for the duration of the proceedings.
And into this climate walks Argento. In what amounts to little more than a cameo, she’s the new girl at the club, Monroe, and she won’t go anywhere without her dog. He’s a big, black and sleek, toothy and drooly, and he renders the club’s “chef” (his culinary repetoire is limited to “free range” pigs in a blanket) scared shitless. The announcer introduces Monroe as “the scariest, sexiest girl in the world,” but her “act” is really a duet: she writhes, the dog drools, they engage in a bit of low-level bestiality, end scene. Like Dietrich emerging from her "Blonde Venus" gorilla suit, it’s so blatantly an equation of performance-as-debasement that it plays as farce. Not a single girl in that club is getting paid that night, except for Monroe–and you know she’s working over time.
As in "The Last Mistress," here Argento’s victory is a man’s degradation, but what Breillat plays as tragedy, Ferrara plays for laughs. Bizarrely, Breillat, a filmmaker who has dedicated the bulk of her career to challenging sexual mores on film, has made the film that feels rote in its handling of female power. At least with Ferrara, you know he’s laughing at himself, and "Go Go Tales" plays like the better film for it.