Written and directed by Catherine Breillat
How can you dramatize real-life events you were a party to, but don’t fully understand yourself? In the case of Catherine Breillat, you do your very best to communicate the depth of your own lack of comprehension. Surely one of the least vain openly autobiographical films ever made, Abuse of Weakness is repetitive and infuriating – but deliberately so, and to its complement.
Breillat’s onscreen avatar (named Maud Schoenberg in the film) is none other than French screen legend Isabelle Huppert, making her first appearance in a Breillat film. The film opens with a painfully detailed re-enactment of the stroke that left Breillat physically devastated and dependent on the use of a cane. Maud frequently refers to herself, somewhat jokingly, as “half a corpse” – indeed, Maud appears to take very little seriously, and it’s impossible to tell whether or not that nonchalant behavior predates her physical trauma. While watching TV one night, Maud catches a smooth-talking conman named Vilko (French rapper Kool Shen), who boasts of the millions he swindled from the rich and poor alike, for which he served twelve years in prison. Fascinated by his casually brutish manner, Maud calls her producer to set up a meeting. Maud convinces him to star in her new film, a typically Breillat-esque chronicling of a physically taxing relationship powered by envy and possessiveness. Vilko agrees, but quickly sets out robbing Maud blind, check by check, until she apparently has little to nothing left, much to the collective befuddlement of her friends, family and peers.
Unlike Breillat’s most famous work (Romance, Fat Girl, Anatomy of Hell), there’s no onscreen sex of any kind in Abuse of Weakness, only a prolonged, agonizing battle of wits in which one party seems to possess absolutely no self-control or situational awareness whatsoever. While Vilko systematically dismantles Maud’s life, she continues to treat and speak of him as a lower-caste thug, a simpleton unworthy of her time or attention. Even as her standard of living degrades dramatically (along with her physical well-being), she remains manifestly defiant in her superiority. It’s an extremely difficult role, one that neither commands nor demands audience sympathy, and Huppert is likely one of the only living actresses who could have pulled it off with such precision. The final sequence, in which Maud must finally account for her behavior to a roomful of speechless associates and family members, acts as a kind of skeleton key for all that came before, and culminates with Maud/Breillat addressing the camera (and, by extension, us) directly. It’s a Hail Mary of the sort only a truly courageous filmmaker and star would dare attempt, and it functions beautifully.
Abuse of Weakness shares with Romance in particular a desire to honestly exhibit human behavior without judgment or compromise. It\s entirely conceivable that viewers who don’t possess massive reserves of empathy will complete the film and disregard Maud (and Breillat by extension) as foolish to the point of stupidity. The beauty of Abuse of Weakness is that Breillat herself leaves room for that reading in the film’s final moments, never allowing Maud’s considerable physical and psychological difficulties neatly excuse her behavior. That warts-and-all sensibility is the key to true humanist cinema, and in the face of this surplus of honesty, most will only balk in frustration; after all, we would never be so foolish, no matter the circumstance. Surely.
– Simon Howell
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.