Though they mostly deal with desire, films by French provocatrice Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, Romance) tend to be cold, hard little objects, so knotted with theories about sexuality that they never get far under our skin. What a surprise that in her new film, The Last Mistress, Breillat transforms a 19th-century novel about the affair between a Spanish courtesan and a Parisian libertine into a vibrant and modern-feeling tale that generates both sensual and emotional heat.

Breillat is in many ways not terribly well suited to this material. She's never been a particularly dynamic crafter of images, and there are patches of her new movie that sag with the look of drably staged costume drama. But Breillat's unflinching instinct for the doomed, all-consuming pull of sexual obsession shakes the story up in rewarding ways. The film is about a young dilettante (newcomer Fu'ad Aït Aattou) who tries, with diminishing success, to extricate himself from the older temptress La Vellini (Italian badass Asia Argento). Breillat looks beyond their erotic tug-of-war to locate the link—by turns arousing and devastating—between individual desire and societal expectation. The lovers' passion is made rawer, lonelier, and more hopelessly addictive by the shock and disapproval of everyone around them.

If The Last Mistress hits harder than Breillat's previous, more sexually explicit work, it's in large part thanks to Argento. The actress stalks, gnarls, gnashes, and vamps her way through the movie, yet it never seems like she's hamming it up; hers is one of the most vivid portrayals of lust that I've seen. Then Argento layers her swagger with wounded pride, turning La Vellini into an original creation: a femme fatale who's hungry for more than she thinks.