French novelist and filmmaker Catherine Breillat, best known for Sex is Comedy, Fat Girl, and The Last Mistress, uses her familiar, transgressive style in her new film Abuse of Weakness. Breillat has always walked the line of violence, gore, and explicit understanding of female sexuality. When Fat Girl was released in 2001, the raw and powerful film struck home personally and professionally, having been released early on in my haiku-posting career. As of late, I have not kept up with Breillat’s films or personal details of her life, which made my appreciation of Abuse of Weakness that much greater.
The film stars award-winning French actress Isabelle Huppert as “Maud”, a successful, middle-aged filmmaker. Her peaceful, independent life in Paris is interrupted when she has a stroke, paralyzed on her right side and unable to walk. The early scenes of the film trace her recovery in the rehab facility, learning to walk and talk again and gain whatever control she’s going to have of her body. Since Maud was a very attractive and successful woman, it’s doubly devastating for her to be dependent on other people. Although you have empathy for her situation, the character of Maud is far from soft and cuddly. It’s even difficult to have sympathy for a person who treats other people so horribly.
Maud recovers well enough to think about going back to work on a movie she’d been planning pre-stroke. As she watches TV one night, she sees an interview with “Vilko,” (Kool Shen) a handsome, charismatic swindler, and is immediately riveted. Maud is mesmerized by his stories about the terrible things that he did and the people he swindled out of money. He set them up as marks without any conscience about it, went to prison, and still has no remorse. Vilko is clearly a sociopath as he discusses his unresolved abandonment issues from childhood that he’s working out. But riveted Maud tracks him down and invites him to play a key role in her new film – and, of course, he agrees. This is the beginning of Maud and Vilko’s co-dependent relationship. On the surface, and like the film’s title Abuse of Weakness suggests, he is cheating Maud just like everyone else. But on a deeper level, it’s much more complicated. She’s equally abusing his weakness – his need for a mother figure. She forms an unhealthy relationship (sex and power – a common theme in Breillat’s films) where he abuses her just as she abuses his need for attention, love, and affirmation. Their relationship becomes toxic as she depends on him physically as he depends on her financially. But with an attempted intervention by her family and manager, Maud continues to rebuff their efforts until she can’t rebuff them anymore.
Casting Isabelle Huppert was genius because her previous work in The Piano Teacher would lead a knowledgeable director to know that she could capture the essence of this character Maud, and she does. Kool Shen, a rapper who doesn’t even have screen credits, also gives a terrific performance as Vilko with his powerful, French bad boy physicality.
Almost the entire film is based on true events. Catherine Breillat did, in fact, have a stroke and a relationship with a conman named Christophe Rocancourt. Like Maud, she saw him and decided she wanted him to be in her film. Breillat eventually sued for him for taking advantage of her diminished mental capacity, or in legal terms, for abuse of weakness. Unaware of the factual details beforehand made me see the film as a meditation on Breillat’s life, on the characters in French film, and the relationships between good girls and bad boys that have inhabited French cinema for a century.
Abuse of Weakness is not a documentary but a narrative drama of examination of power, money, sex and codependency. With respect to her stroke, the truest part of the film is likely that her stroke gave her a sense of mortality, stressing the intensity of time. You understand that her time is limited and that she may not have another chance to say what she wants to say, so she really goes for broke in this film. The more I think about it, it’s really the best one she’s ever done.
Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/02/14)
Top Photo: Filmmaker Catherine Breillat
Bottom Photo: Isabelle Huppert as “Maud” and Kool Shen as “Vilko”
Q: Does Abuse of Weakness pass the Bechdel Test?
It doesn’t really pass the Bechdel Test because most of the scenes are one-on-one between Maud and Vilko. There is some stuff around the edges with her daughter, so technically her dealing with nurses and therapists could make it pass, but really it’s not a Bechdel Test movie. It’s an interior movie about Maud playing out the themes of her life with this man who she’s fixed on as her opponent in some bizarre, French chess game.