In 2004, French director Catherine Breillat, famous for making very personal and sexually provocative films such as 36 Fillette (1988), Romance (1999), and Fat Girl (2001), suffered a debilitating stroke caused by a cerebral hemorrhage. This stroke partially paralyzed her and caused epileptic seizures, requiring a long hospital stay and a lengthy period of physical therapy.
When Breillat had recovered enough to return to work - although she was still very dependent on others to get around and for other basic tasks - she began with a project called Bad Love, based on her own novel. Supermodel Naomi Campbell had been cast as the female lead, and for the male lead, Breillat decided to cast Christophe Rocancourt, a notorious conman she saw giving an interview on television. Rocancourt subsequently scammed Breillat out of nearly 700,000 euros for various business ventures that he was supposedly involved in. Rocancourt was eventually convicted of the crime, and Breillat wrote a book called Abuse of Weakness (which was the formal legal charge levied against Rocancourt), detailing how she was taken advantage of because of her weakened state due to her illness.
Breillat's latest film Abuse of Weakness is an adaptation of her memoir and an artistic reconstruction of the details of the traumatic events of both her illness and her victimization by Rocancourt. Breillat fictionalizes details and changes names, but its intensely autobiographical feel remains undiminished. In this version of the story, Isabelle Huppert plays Maud, a film director who at the beginning of the film gets out of bed and immediately collapses, unable to get up.
In these initial scenes, Huppert is frighteningly convincing in showing us the violence of her body attacking itself, and her painful struggle to regain mobility, and even to laugh. When Maud is well enough to begin making films again, she happens to see Vilko Paran (rapper Kool Shen) on television giving an interview. Vilko has recently completed a jail sentence for being a serial conman, scamming his victims out of millions. He is promoting a memoir he has just published, and is brazenly unapologetic about his crimes. Maud is immediately intrigued by Vilko and arranges to meet him. Maud decides to cast him in her next film, and thus begins the strange relationship between them.
Vilko is married, but spends more and more of his time with Maud. There is no sexual component to their relationship; Vilko's awkward attempt to kiss Maud is quickly dismissed. Maud is isolated much of the time, since her family hardly ever visits. Vilko becomes a constant companion that Maud can depend upon, possessing a crude, uncouth sort of charm that amuses, intrigues, and attracts her. Soon Vilko begins talking of his financial distress and claims to be in personal danger because of this. And Maud begins signing him check after check, impulsively, and almost unthinkingly. The roles of victim and victimizer become increasingly blurred, as the two are inextricably locked in a mutually co-dependent relationship.
All this leads inevitably to Maud's financial ruin, and all she can say in the film's final scene, as her shocked and uncomprehending family gathers around her, is "It was me, but it wasn't me." Her motivations for giving so much of her money to this obvious con man are seemingly as mysterious to her as it is to us watching the film. And unfortunately, this is the film's main problem. As mesmerizing as Huppert is to watch as her character sinks further into an emotional and financial morass largely of her own making, the motivations behind why Maud so easily lets Vilko ruin her remain bafflingly opaque to the final shot, as a teary-eyed Maud faces the camera. We simply observe what's happening as if though thick, impenetrable glass, resolutely kept emotionally outside the action, giving a very clinical air to the proceedings. Breillat, of course, thoroughly understands the psychological and emotional import of these events, but little of that is conveyed to the audience. This results in Abuse of Weakness being a film that is bravely confessional yet strangely detached and abstract.
Abuse of Weakness screens at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 6, 6:15pm and October 9, 6pm. For more information, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center's website.
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