Journal Article

Undressing the Costume Drama: Catherine Breillat’s <i>Une vieille maîtresse</i>

Heidi Brevik-Zender

in Adaptation

Volume 5, issue 2, pages 203-218
Published in print September 2012 | ISSN: 1755-0637
Published online December 2011 | e-ISSN: 1755-0645 | DOI:
Undressing the Costume Drama: Catherine Breillat’s Une vieille maîtresse

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Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse), a 2007 film adaptation of an 1851 novel of the same name by French author Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808–89), exemplifies a recent cinematic trend to use fashion to play with and extend the boundaries of a genre conventionally known as the costume drama. That Breillat was drawn to Barbey’s work is in some ways natural enough, since the latter’s darkly decadent tales of seductive femme fatales, female vampires, and sexually deviant women provoked scandals in his own day that mirror the controversies that Breillat, through her shocking, explicitly sexual films, similarly cultivates today. What was perhaps most unexpected about the film was the director’s departure from the contemporary settings that she had normally favoured and her turn to the historical costume film, a genre that, unlike Breillat’s earlier cinematic offerings, is traditionally associated with conservatism, the uncritical reaffirmation of grand historical narratives, and the privileging of style over dramatic substance. Within the context of adaptation studies, it would be possible to explore The Last Mistress for the ways in which it translates the text of Barbey’s decadent novel into moving image. Yet, as I argue in this paper, the film’s most compelling adaptive complexities lie not in its text-to-screen operations but rather in its transnational manipulations of the genre of costume drama itself.

Keywords: French film; Catherine Breillat; costume drama; Une vieille maîtresse; The Last Mistress; Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly; Asia Argento

Journal Article.  8067 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Film ; Television ; Literature

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