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The Last Mistress (IFC)

Trumbo (Samuel Goldwyn and Red Envelope)

The French director Catherine Breillat uses plentiful sex in her films. This is notable not for its candor, a quality that is nowadays general, but for its cunning purpose. Her easy, open attitude toward sex makes the viewer wonder (this seems to be Breillat's plan) what the difference is between her films and pornography. So we consider the context of those naked scenes even more thoroughly, and we decide that the context gives her films a thematic texture that pornography never has. The sex thus emphasizes the non-sexual.

Breillat has done it again in The Last Mistress, which she adapted from a novel by the prodigal nineteenth-century author Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly. Paris in 1835 is where it begins, with a visit by a handsome and wealthy young gentleman, Ryno de Marigny, to his longtime mistress, Vellini. He tells her that he is finished with her; he is marrying a young woman, Hermangarde, whom he loves. Vellini, Spanish-born, a Carmen with more money and better taste, is sure that he will be back.

One evening Marigny is with Hermangarde's grandmother. She knows, as does all Paris, about Vellini, and she charmingly but hungrily asks him to recount his affair. This tale is a large part of the film: it takes Marigny all of one night. He fell in love with Vellini when she was married to an elderly English aristocrat. Marigny persisted; she repulsed. Soon the husband challenged him to a duel. Marigny fired in the air, and the husband wounded him in the chest. As the surgeon was taking out the bullet, Vellini burst into the room and licked the blood from his chest.

Thus began their affair. (The English husband disappears.) The two lovers fled to Algeria, where La Vellini gave birth to their child. The child died, and, true to her wild romanticism, Vellini wanted to burn the body in the desert. They did. She and Marigny, seized by emotions they couldn't and didn't want to understand, made love next to the burning body of their child.

Marigny's account winds to its close, and the grandmother relishes it all. The wedding soon takes place. Hermangarde expects fidelity, and Marigny expects it too of himself, but Vellini has other plans. The picture reaches a conclusion that none of the three principals had foreseen.

As the story moves along, the old Breillat question arises through the vivid sex scenes: why isn't this pornography? Definitions of pornography are booby traps, but a sexy film that realizes a serious idea stands apart from exploitation. More: with Breillat, the sex certifies the gravity. Yes, the couplings might have been less explicit, but the immediacy--we can almost scent body odors--becomes a verification. Breillat's film dramatizes the truth that human beings contain more than conventional ideals, which are abstractly calculated. True love in a man or woman does not always prohibit another true love. The film is not about Marigny's mere philandering: he is bound differently but deeply to two women.

This is hardly groundbreaking news about human nature, but Breillat's depiction of it is sensual and affecting. Her sensuality is focused on the people: the luxuriant and gorgeous costumes and settings of the time do not entrance her as they did Jacques Rivette in the comparable Don't Touch the Axe. To play Marigny, she has found a young newcomer named Fu'ad Ait Aatou, good enough and handsome enough. Asia Argento, as Vellini, is a firebrand, a woman who is attractive even in non-seductive moments when she is angry or downcast or "off-stage." As Hermangarde, Roxane Mesquida, blonde of course, is softly ornamental.

Breillat, born in 1948, has been making films since 1975 and has taken knocks because of her subjects (not all of those knocks undeserved). I have seen only a few of her pictures, including Romance and Anatomy of Hell, but The Last Mistress seems to crown her method and intent--and, one must ultimately add, her courage.

Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) was a writer who won the National Book Award for a novel, won an Academy Award for a screenplay, and served ten months in prison for contempt of Congress. A documentary called Trumbo expertly provides the outlines of the life in which those three events occurred. The screenplay of the film was derived by Trumbo's son Christopher from the son's play of the same name, which has had several productions. Indeed, some of the actors who were in the play are in the film.

Christopher cannot really be said to have written the play or the screenplay: mostly, he arranged excerpts from his father's letters, which have been published, and those excerpts are interwoven with footage of Trumbo, of which there is a lot. Apparently the play consisted only of the letters. They are rich, but, with the many clips of their author, the film is inevitably richer.

Trumbo wrote or collaborated on literally innumerable films (an accurate count is impossible), among them Exodus, Hawaii, and The Fixer. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation of Kitty Foyle, and he won the award for The Brave One (though he wrote it under a pseudonym during the blacklist days). We might think that he was a born film creature who had found his natural habitat. But, prominent though he was in the field, it was secondary in his mind. When he got his first studio contract at the age of thirty, after he had already published a novel--there were more to come--he wrote to a friend: "I want the movies to subsidize me for a while, until I establish myself as a legitimate writer." This legitimacy became a lesser concern, yet when he was blacklisted in 1947 because of his membership in the Communist Party, he wrote to a friend that he felt joyous to be freed from screenwriting. Allow for his impulse to disguise trouble as triumph, and the comment still discloses the "better" Trumbo that he wanted to believe was within him.

Long sympathetic to the left, Trumbo joined the Communist Party in 1943 and quit in 1946 because, he said, he was too busy to go to meetings. We can infer that he got tired of party machinations. Still, typical of his capacity for gesture, he rejoined the party, for a time, during the blacklist period. As one of the Hollywood Ten--eminent film people who protested the blacklisting and were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee--he refused to give names of party members or any information to the committee. He was found guilty of contempt and sent to prison in 1947. He viewed his activities all through this era less as a political struggle than as a struggle against the committee's aim to degrade people. In and after prison, he fought to keep them from humbling him. And fought with humor. At one point he said that there were only eighty thousand American communists and that this country was in more danger from the Elks. Factually, the comment is tenuous; yet it stings.

After prison, he survived by writing or collaborating on screenplays under false names or friends' names. Estimates vary from eighteen to thirty screenplays that he was involved in pseudonymously. Much of this documentary's effect lies in the letters that he wrote, in somewhat curlicued but polished style, during those blacklist days. At first we might wince at the prospect of going through another account of those days, but this one is completely engrossing because of Trumbo's writing and spirit.

Trumbo as letter-writer was a bit of a ham, quite aware of it and making the most of it for his pleasure and ours. For instance (this bit is not in the film), near the end of the era he wrote to Albert Maltz, another blacklist victim:

There will never be an official end to the blacklist. Therefore we must pretend this is the end ...and pose not as angry martyrs, as the persecuted, but as good winners. In this guise we assume our victory at last, and carry no grudges forward into the future.

In other words, this flamboyantly sincere man says, we must be actors, performing roles in order to protect our best selves and our futures. (Note: the blacklist was "broken" in 1960 by Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, who insisted on giving Trumbo screen credit for his work on, respectively, Spartacus and Exodus.)

This histrionic flavor in Trumbo, though it was heightened by the blacklist days, had been in him throughout his life. One instance, quoted at length in the film, is a letter he wrote to his adolescent son on the subject of masturbation, praising it highly and recommending a book that favors it. (He refers to himself as "a penile virtuoso.") Once again--like his rejoining the Party during the blacklist days--he glories in contravening expectation with a flourish.

The element of theater in Trumbo took over in his person as well. As the years went by and his hair whitened, he wore it long, and he cultivated a swooping moustache, as if to tell anyone who looked at him that he was just a bit larger, more sizable, than one might think. This histrionic quality in Trumbo is embraced by the documentary's director, Peter Askin, and is wonderfully realized by the actors who read extracts from his letters. Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, and Donald Sutherland read with empathy, perception, and--especially Sutherland and Neeson--an appropriate music in their voices. Interviews with, among others, the now-venerable Kirk Douglas and Dustin Hoffman, who was in Trumbo's Papillon, widen the film's range.

The crux of Trumbo's career is his character. His achievements as a writer, for all his furious energy and imagination, are slim. His novels are forgotten. Most of the films that I remember in the unavoidably incomplete list of sixty in Peter Hanson's biography were either potboilers or Hollywood-serious--potboilers lacquered with mature ideas and with patches of exceptional writing. His anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun (from his own novel) is simplistic. His Oscar winner, The Brave One, is sentimentality about bullfighting. Even the best films that he wrote or collaborated on, among them Roman Holiday and Papillon, are not quite first rank. The salient fact about Trumbo's life is that, though he went into screenwriting to support other writing, what it really supported was the creation of his persona--showy but generous, consciously but truly brave, quasi-Edwardian in diction. It is oddly pleasant to know that such a man once existed.

Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.

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By Stanley Kauffmann