Lush. Debauched. Ravishing. And did I mention sexy?

The Last Mistress

, from French controversialist Catherine Breillat (herself the last master of the soft-core art film), is

Dangerous Liaisons

, uncorseted and undressed.

Lovers of 19th century literature and painting will particularly relish Breillat's earthy costume drama set in the 1830s. Her adaptation of the scandalous 1851 novel by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly (more properly translated as "The Old Mistress"), is a study in virtue, decadence and burning desire.

The aristocrat Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou, whose plush lips and slender frame suggest a male Angelina Jolie) is the talk of Paris.

Will he be faithful to his fiance, classically beautiful Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), domesticated and self-contained as the subject in an Ingres portrait? Or will he return to his mistress, La Vellini (Asia Argento), wild, unpredictable, and exotic as a creature captured by Delacroix?

Does social convention trump raw lust? Ultimately, does Ryno crave a girl he can mold or a woman who is at very least his equal, and maybe his master?

Most of Breillat's visual allusions are to 19th-century French painting. But when the director introduces Vellini, daughter of Malaga, the recumbent creature is posed and dressed as Goya's "Clothed Maja."

When first introduced, Ryno thinks Vellini an "ugly mutt," but soon is captivated by the "flamenca who can outstare the sun."

Like a bird of paradise blooming in a garden of pale roses, Argento's Vellini dominates the film. Her flinty, funny performance recalls that of Judy Davis in Impromptu, similarly the story of a convention-defying, male-prerogative-assuming 19th-century Parisienne in love with an androgynous man.

Speaking of Ryno, Aattou (who makes his astonishing film debut here) is at home as Breillat's principal lust object and libertine narrator of the film's extended flashback.

Breillat, herself a novelist and film provocateur, indulges in explicit scenes of coupling. There they are, Ryno and Hermangarde - tender on the marital bed; there they are, Ryno and Vellini, carnal on a tigerskin rug.

Her movie is as interested in passion as it is in the peculiarly French pastime of overanalyzing love and desire. Where, for Pat Benatar, love is a battlefield, for Breillat, love is a chess game, one inevitably overwhelmed by passion.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@philly.news.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/