It is said that every man has one woman who destroyed him; what this destruction precisely entails and whether or not the man is the better for this havoc is left to the imagination of the listener. What is interesting about such an observation is that it has held true despite the overt sexual liberation of the postwar period. Once upon a time a poet's soul was devastated by a princesse lointaine who remained lointaine; now it is a unclothed body he cannot forsake. The reasons for such mutability are probably many, but the most likely is man's desire for a muse. Of the two genders, men are most definitely the greater idealists, with the fact that they endure fewer reminders of their mortal frame throughout a lifetime contributing to this luxury of perspective. Men will write an ode to a woman's beauty, or her voluptuousness, or the love that he cannot overcome or replace, and that woman will more often than not still be in the throes of youthful perfection, every curve unjagged, every corpuscle unblemished. With this repining for glory gone comes a certain nonchalance towards present time actions, namely relationships following upon this destruction. In fact, his thralldom to a former mistress might provide him with a convenient excuse for his lack of commitment, or worse, for his lack of faithfulness, which in most of us is nothing more than a fear of commitment. Old themes, yes, but nicely packaged and ribboned in this recent film.
The plot is simplicity itself, which in these types of tales is usually a good sign. 1835, Paris: a dashing young rake, Ryno de Marigny (first-timer Fu'ad Ait Aattou) has been chosen to marry the delicate, virginal and unmistakably wealthy Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). Before the wedding, Hermangarde's grandmother decides to have a fireside chat with Ryno regarding his past affairs and smartly leaves her whole night unbooked. Ryno proceeds with his studied guile, flirting gently with the woman almost three times his age, and finally avers that he could not marry Hermangarde if he did not love her so passionately. The grandmother and the viewer know, however, exactly what passions Ryno has been harboring: according to rumor and the brief scenes that preface this long conversation, Ryno has been involved for ten years with an illegitimate Spanish woman (Asia Argento) who, in the year of our Lord 1835, is now thirty-six and past a respectable age for that type of behavior. She is a product of the previous century ("the age of Laclos," quip a few characters at different junctures) and therefore not subject to the same rules and expectations that might bind, say, the artless Hermangarde. Ridiculous details are added as they become available: the mistress, known only as Vellini, was born to a Spanish bullfighter and an Italian duchess, and is married to an old English nobleman whose failing hearing and sight make her extracurricular activities that much easier. Ryno's first encounter with her has the touch of cinematic coincidence, and the sudden hatred that can only yield to carnality also suggests more modern conduct. Yet we are convinced in the film's first half (the wedding comes exactly at the midway point) that our story has been garnished with the details that all storytellers permit themselves to amuse their audience. Moreover, the grandmother, an old fool who is madly taken with Ryno and his full Roman lips, has already made up her mind to allow the two to wed well before Ryno concludes his story at daybreak with the avowal that he has not been with Vellini in a very long time. She is completely satisfied, but we are not. After the wedding, a somber and drab interlude with a hurried reading from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians on the place of women, Hermangarde and Ryno retreat to the seaside to one of her family's many stations and plan a life without Vellini or anyone else. A third act with a couple of twists convinces us, however, of the validity of that aphorism about old habits.
Unsurprisingly, this wealth of absurd detail has led many critics to deem the film pornography in period piece guise, which is both rash and as absurd as the tidbits they feel sully the screen. And while we quickly catch on to the simple dichotomy in this author's novel on which the film was based – good girl, bad girl; sexless, sexpot; nice, naughty (all Ryno gets to do to Hermangarde before they are wed is plant a wet kiss on her raised brow) – our expectations are challenged by the format the film assumes. There are admittedly a few scenes of candid intimacy; but given the subject matter they are interspersed between verbose narratives which seem to feed off one another like the near-incantations of this famous storyteller. There is almost no violence, no hysterics (other than upon the sudden death of a child), no pulsating passion that would resolve itself in more conventional films into an ungodly amount of bloodletting, no pretension towards sublimating the film into some sort of moral tragedy backed by a cloying soundtrack. In fact, every scene is longer, simpler and closer than we expect. Widely praised for her performance by the film's admirers, Argento overacts continuously because her character is the epitome of overacting: she is compensating for the fact that she is neither beautiful nor rich nor intelligent nor, as it were, particularly interesting. What she does offer is a lull from the icy rituals of everyday life among the elite, but she could never be someone a person of right mind would want to keep as his own. Is that a reason to criticize the film? Not at all, it is a reason to applaud the casting. Had Vellini been a true knockout, there would have been no appeal whatsoever to Ryno, who has seen and done everything with everyone. If she didn't have two curls like intertwined lovers or some satanic symbol on her forehead; if she didn't pray one minute and cackle in defiance the next; if she didn't disguise herself as the devil to a masked ball by dressing exactly the way she always does; if she didn't remind us of another unstable Spanish girl who might be the harbinger of doom, we would not be inclined to believe that ten years of lovemaking (with the "average marriage in Paris nowadays lasting only seven") could be at all riveting. "I am afraid of a part of my destiny," says a beleaguered Ryno at one point, but we don't believe he's afraid of anything except his own weakness. And more than once in the film are we reminded of an old Arabic proverb: only the scorpion gives things for free.