Okay, give it to me straight. Am I really the last person on earth to discover Asia Argento? To be fair, I'd vaguely heard of Ms. Argento before, but never actually watched anything she'd acted in, largely because her repertoire seemed to consist of vowel-less action flicks and macabre horror films (not my favorite genre) directed by Ms. Argento's father (nepotism alert!). Then, this evening, I watched her play Vellini in Catherine Breillat's Une Vieille Maitresse  and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't blown away.
And it isn't the nudity (though there's a lot of it) and it isn't the sex scenes (which are done with Breillat's customary vividness and make Ang Lee's little jaunts in Lust, Caution look like a game of Twister for fourteen year olds), it's the smouldering presence of the woman, the brutal, almost contemptuous sexual confidence that reminded me of no one so much as Jeanne Moreau . This is not some tarted-up siren diverting Ulysses from his Penelope, this is Circe herself, a woman capable of turning men into pigs with a snap of her fingers. At one point in the film Vellini's hapless lover, M. Marigny remarks to the grandmother of his fiancee how she's probably surprised that anyone would be willing to ruin herself for 'such a creature'. The genius of Breillat's film - and an achievement that I have no doubt owes as much to her talent as to Ms. Argento's - is that having seen Ms. Argento's Vellini the idea that someone would want to destroy his life for her doesn't seem surprising at all. On the contrary, you have to wonder what all the other men in Paris are doing that might be equally worthwhile. When Ms. Argento takes a knife and playfully slashes her lover's cheek with it, what you feel is not horror, but envy. Oh to be a cheek under that knife, you think, or words to that effect.
In any case, Une Vieille Maitresse is a mesmerising, subversive and visually ravishing film that is all the more brilliant for having Ms. Argento as its magnetic center. Now if only someone would convince Julie Taymor to do a film version of Carmen with Ms. Argento as the lead. That I would kill to see.
 It seems to me that 'maitresse' is one of those few words where the English translation actually sounds sexier than the French word. 'Mistress' sounds suitably sibilant and sinful, Maitresse sounds like a cross between someone who shows you to your table and something you put on your bed (and no, I don't mean it that way, smartass!).
 Which, just in case you had doubts, is high praise indeed.