At the World Cinema Showcase, Asia Argento rips her into bodice. By DAVID LEVINSON.

THERE’s enough t&a in Catherine Breillat’s An Old Mistress to tide over the most seasoned devotee of softcore royal intrigue, though for the most the part the Frenchwoman plays it safe (which is to say, level-headed): Deprived here of a contemporary setting, she sublimates accordingly – turning the militant love strategies of the French aristocracy into a survey of gender (and generational) power-plays.

In fact, given her icy commitment to social ritual, you could almost call Breillat’s film – based on a novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly – a subliminal retort to the failure of Marie Antoinette, if it weren’t for the fact that Breillat so pointedly steals that film’s ignored vamp (the irrepresible Asia Argento) and places her at the centre of her own dizzy web of distortions. In any case, the difference between the two works is immense: Numb to the teen-pop pageantry of Coppola’s Versailles, Breillat turns in a pitch-perfect drama – one equally weighted between decorous procedural and the lush confusion of its participants.

Rather than paint a straight line between repression and release though, Breillat takes the Foucauldian way out – navigating desire as a nexus of hidden spaces and criss-crossing agendas. Emerging from the eye of that storm, resplendently vulgar, is the anomaly of Asia’s cigar-chewing “mutt”: At once lively and brooding, she plays Vellini – an Andalusian courtesan who ends up locking well-to-do libertine Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) in a ten-year love affair (the span of which remains “unheard of,” as one blue-blood spits, given the vogue for stiffly procured arrangements). Once it’s declared, however, that Ryno himself will be joining the ranks of nobility – via his marriage to the meek Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) –, he severs all ties with Vellini, escaping to a castle by the sea so as to “avoid temptation”. Regardless, she pursues him – rekindling an old tug-of-war that gains new life in windswept shorelines and static ruins; meanwhile, wary of the male coup of an old mistress succumbing to her rakish master, Breillat elevates Vellini to the status of demon – knitting her presence with a rich symbology of broken glass and shed blood. Ultimately though, for all the inflamed passion and free-form splendor of her union with Ryno, their’s is a doomed romance – less in the tragi-poetic sense (as the victim of outsider influence), and more insofar as, by the film’s end, it’s reduced to a self-devouring pact, hopelessly lost in the tipping point between centuries.