Mata Hari’s last love
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, better known as Mata Hari, continues to inspire historians, journalists and artists, even though she died almost 100 years ago. The mystery and speculation surrounding her turbulent love life, her sensational performances as a naked dancer and her career as a spy have stirred countless imaginations – not least that of director Céline Linssen, who wrote the screenplay, Mata Hari’s Last Love. Filming was delayed – insufficient funding – for several years but that led, happily, to her adapting her script into a stirringly sensual novel, Duet.
The story is set in the final days of Mata Hari’s life, as the French authorities sentence her to death for espionage and she awaits execution in Saint-Lazare women’s prison in Paris, where the Sisters of Marie Joseph befriend and comfort the prisoners. Mata Hari is supported by Sister Léonide, who has set herself the task of converting this capricious, lively, but above all sinful courtesan to the true faith in the weeks before her death. But as the nun comes under the spell of Mata Hari’s ravishing beauty and intriguing personality, the reverse happens. Léonide falls in love with her, eventually losing the certainties of her faith, while Mata Hari falls for the reserved Léonide. Her first love for a woman will also be her last.
As she alternates between the viewpoint of Mata Hari and Sister Léonide, Linssen subtly shows their cautious, gradual attraction and repulsion, their confusion and the practical impossibility of their feelings. This lends the story a subdued sensual tension.
Linssen offers insights into Mata Hari’s tumultuous past as well, of course, her life as the lover of countless men and as a dancer who would come on stage ‘dressed in a little handkerchief held in one hand’.
Although Linssen relies on historical sources, her writing is guided primarily by her imagination. The result is a novel extraordinary for its convincing portrayals and atmospheric descriptions, and for its stylistic refinement.