by Matt Levine
Catherine Breillat’s films are well-known for digging into the uncomfortable corners of human sexuality, but in her best work, the subject of interest isn’t so much the nitty-gritty of copulation as it is extreme human behavior itself. What I remember most about Fat Girl (2001) or The Last Mistress (2007) are its grueling scenes of humiliation, struggle for power, grief, and jealousy more than their graphic sex and nudity. Indeed, when Breillat overindulges her shock-provocateur proclivities, her films often suffer—as in the case of Anatomy of Hell (2004), in which human behavior doesn’t seem to matter as much as frank depictions of menstruation and ejaculation.
Director: Catherine Breillat
Producer: Jean-François Lepetit
Writer: Catherine Breillat
Cinematographer: Alain Marcoen
Editor: Pascal Chavance
Music: Didier Lockwood
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino, Christophe Sermet, Ronald Leclercq
Premiere: September 6, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 15, 2014
US Distributor: Strand Releasing
There are almost no onscreen depictions of carnality in Abuse of Weakness, though Breillat’s newest film is nonetheless largely about sex: how men and women try to coerce others into lusting after them (especially through intimidation and manipulation), how power and weakness can take unexpected forms in modern society. The story is semi-autobiographical, with the always hypnotic Isabelle Huppert acting as a Breillat stand-in. Huppert plays French writer-director Maud Shainberg, who has recently begun work on her newest project; though we don’t see any scenes from Shainberg’s previous movies, her discussion of the storyline from her next film certainly sounds like Breillat territory—it’s about a rich woman who becomes obsessed with a poor, younger man, their relationship turning brutally violent.
Before even starting to shoot her next project, though, Maud suffers a sudden stroke—the very first scene of Abuse of Weakness, conveyed with mysterious eroticism by extreme close-ups of her milky white bedsheets as she writhes beneath them. The first twenty minutes of the film detail Maud’s efforts to cope with the physical ailments of the stroke; we witness her painstaking physical therapy, her feverish belief that her half-paralyzed face will prevent her from ever laughing again. But the fiercely independent Maud ultimately approaches her recovery like everything else in her life: headstrong, cavalier, certain she’ll be able to overcome. Throughout Abuse of Weakness, Huppert—wielding a cane and freezing the left side of her body in paralysis—offers a performance that’s as physically impressive as Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, though Huppert’s work is less showy and will almost certainly be ignored by Oscar voters.
Maud’s motivation to return to work arrives in the form of Vilko Piran (Kool Shen), a notorious crook who stole more than $100 million from the wealthiest people in the world and spent 12 years in an Indian jail. When Maud spots him on a TV talk show, she finds in his boorish lack of contrition a dangerously sexy, unpolished persona—in other words, the star of her next movie. She convinces her producer to connect her to him, eventually offering him a hefty paycheck to star in her imminent project. He agrees, liking the violent and volatile ending, but an unreadable glimmer in his eye suggests that their collaboration won’t go as she intends.
This proposed project never actually commences during Abuse of Weakness; Maud’s lack of a creative outlet serves as a corollary to the emotional and physical vulnerability she confronts. Her relationship with Vilko is strangely symbiotic: she offers him a room in her house but never sleeps with him, and every interaction between the two represents a power struggle, with Vilko aiding her physically (feeding her, helping her dress, ushering her up and down stairs) while Maud writes him a series of increasingly hefty checks in order to support his high-flying lifestyle. Vilko constantly claims that Maud enjoys humiliating men, asserting her superiority over them financially and sexually, which does seem like an apt description of her character. At the same time, the seemingly endless “loans” that Maud provides for Vilko ultimately destroy her, bankrupting her and earning her family’s scorn; her careless belief in her upper-class insularity, as a revered artist who can’t possibly be cheated or manipulated, quickly proves to be her downfall.
In real life, Breillat suffered a stroke in 2004 and met notorious conman Christophe Rocancourt in 2007, lending him more than 700,000 Euros. (Rocancourt was imprisoned in 2012 by the French courts for stealing Breillat’s money.) It’s hard to tell from Abuse of Weakness how Breillat feels about this real-life episode; her aesthetic is even chillier and more reserved than usual, with mostly frontal close-ups and medium shots depicting the action. In this case, Breillat’s inscrutability should be seen as an asset: clearly the writer-director is not trying to make apologies for herself, but she also candidly lays out Vilko’s harried attempts at intimidation, conveying him ultimately as a weak and desperate man. A climactic close-up of Huppert as Maud confesses to her family hardly clears things up: she admits that she can’t explain her repeated payments to Vilko and that they wouldn’t understand even if she could.
Our only clues to deciphering Maud’s (and Vilko’s) motivations lie in Breillat’s aesthetic. The visual style only seems simple; each composition is an exercise in conveying characters’ power through visual space, using slight variations in shot scale and angle to tip the scales in one character’s favor. When Maud first invites Vilko to her home shortly after her stroke, she’s often minuscule in the frame compared to Vilko’s closer low-angles—she’s weakened physically and lost emotionally. At various times, though, Maud towers over Vilko literally and figuratively; even in that late close-up when Maud guardedly admits how easily she was ruined, her eyes glance just offscreen, suggesting that it doesn’t matter how close we get—her reasons will remain a mystery, possibly even to herself. It’s a pleasure to see a film as subtly, intelligently made as Abuse of Weakness.
Breillat’s film functions as a sexual melodrama for the capitalist age: if power is now denoted more by the contents of a bank account than one’s size or strength, then writing countless checks is modernity’s supreme mating call. Hobbled by her stroke, Maud latches on to other forms of power—creative, sexual, but largely monetary—to prove her strength. It’s exactly that elitist hubris that proves to be her downfall, the weakness that Vilko abuses. Surprisingly, Breillat’s newest film acts as an interesting counterpart to The Last Mistress; if it was the burgeoning heteronormative mores of the Enlightenment that intruded in human relationships in that case, here it’s the all-importance of wealth, the capitalist mindset of money above all else. Again, Breillat’s editorial voice is cagy enough to allow a number of interpretations, but the numerous scenes of Maud simply writing checks to Vilko—which quickly become repetitive, though that seems to be the point—emphasize the combative absurdity of their relationship.
Abuse of Weakness might ultimately be called a triumph of intellect and abstraction rather than emotion, which isn’t entirely surprising for the often cynical Breillat. But there are countless movies that offer familiar romantic rivalries and torrid stories of loneliness and jealousy. With her newest film, Breillat continues to prove that one of the most direct (and messiest) routes to the heart of human nature is through sexual antagonism. Through it all, Maud remains inscrutable, a strong, independent, but reckless character who makes some of the worst and least explicable decisions in any movie this year. As self-reckonings go, Breillat’s film hardly “tells all”; that’s exactly what makes it so powerful.