Abuse of Weakness
Directed by: Catherine Breillat
Written by: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino and Christophe Sermet
Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness is the semi-autobiographical story of a struggling director whose latest film is impeded by pseudo-romantic entanglement and a debilitating stroke. The first 20 or so minutes of this movie are profoundly horrifying, as Breillat hovers over Maud (Isabelle Huppert) being jolted out of sleep by that stroke. “Half of my body is dead!” she yells to an emergency dispatcher on the phone.
Huppert’s intensely physical performance in this moment and in the rest of the film are crucial to its success, and Breillat films her agony at an often disturbingly close proximity. Abuse of Weakness doesn’t feel intrusive, though, because it is fused with Maud’s subjectivity and not simply a chronicle of her gradually losing her dignity.
It progresses like a half-formed memory, as if Breillat is using the camera to work out what exactly happened to her after she herself had a stroke in 2004. The film hones in on Maud’s most intense emotional and physical experiences and the rest of what happens feels bizarre and unthinkable. It’s Breillat’s 8 1/2.
Not long after her stroke, Maud is lying in bed again, watching TV. She sees a man named Vilko (Kool Shen) giving an interview about a new book chronicling his multi-million dollar con job and subsequent jail time in Hong Kong. She is so impressed by his presence in that interview that she phones her assistant in the middle of the night and asks him to set up a meeting. She wants the con man in her new movie.
Breillat herself was conned out of nearly $800,000 during her recovery by a man named Christophe Roconcourt. According to Film Comment, she successfully sued him for “abuse of weakness.” Vilko also starts asking Maud for money not long after agreeing to be in her movie, but Maud is not a character who lost any of her mental capacity after her stroke. The left side of her body is largely paralyzed, but her wits (and wit) remain fully in tact.
Why then, is she so easily swindled by this man? It’s a main question at the center of the movie, but there isn’t a concrete answer to it. In fact, Breillat shies away from engaging with it to a fault. The scenes where Maud gives away her money sometimes feel tonally out of place in an otherwise much more interesting movie.
Abuse of Weakness is deliberately absent narrative logic, and the seeming straightforwardness of the story only makes that sloppiness more obvious. Like several of the other Breillat movie’s I’ve seen, this is more about the sexual power dynamics between a man and a woman than a sensible story, though. Maud and Vilko are constantly joking about having the upper hand over the other. At one point, Maud even remarks that she wants the special boots she needs to wear to help walk to have an S&M feel. Whenever Vilko helps her walk or put something on, he smirks and jokes about being her servant.
Vilko eventually has his fill of her bank account and leaves, but not before there are several heated discussions and multiple unacted-upon threats of violence. The movie ends on an intentionally vague note, with Maud’s family acting as an audience surrogate, harshly interrogating her about giving away her money to a known con man. At first, Breillat uses a standard shot reverse shot between Maud and her family, but then gradually hones in on her on-screen avatar, zooming in gradually until Huppert’s effortlessly haunted face swallows the frame. There aren’t answers in that face, and I suspect her “It just happened” response will baffle and infuriate many who watch this movie.
As frustrating as Abuse of Weakness can be, its one undeniable draw is the collaboration of one of France’s most provocative auteurs and one of its most talented actresses. Breillat gazes head-on at the disturbingly unrestrained physicality of Huppert’s performance, as if the filmmaker is trying to make eye contact with a fictionalized version of herself. It looks at her writhing on the ground in an epileptic fit, and it stares unflinchingly into the deep recesses of the Huppert’s face as she struggles to keep control of herself. It’s a fantastic performance that anchors this sometimes enthralling, sometimes confused film.