Catherine Breillat is brutality’s greatest filmmaker. Romance, Fat Girl, and Anatomy of Hell are firebreathing, occasionally contemptuous works that expose violence, hypocrisy and misogyny. Yet for the last few years, she’s taken a lighter path. The Last Mistress and her two fairy tales, Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty, share the vision of her prior films but much less of their formal acidity. That turning point, from defiant extremity to quieter magic, came about a decade ago. Breillat’s new film, Abuse of Weakness, is a chronicle of what she endured between 2004 and 2008, perhaps the source of this career shift. It is not only a resounding return to brutality, but also by far the most personal film she has ever made.
Isabelle Huppert plays Maud, the obvious stand-in for the filmmaker herself. The film begins with a medical emergency. Breillat had a stroke in 2004 that paralyzed the left side of her body, and Abuse of Weakness’s first images are a dramatization of the event. Director and actress capture the urgent terror of the moment perfectly, working together impossibly well for new collaborators. After a long stay in the hospital, condensed a bit in the film, Maud finds herself at home in bed watching TV. On the news is an apparently famous con man and convicted criminal, who she decides must star in her next film (in real life this was Bad Love, which was to also star Naomi Campbell).
This is Vilko, a somewhat rougher version of Christophe Rocancourt, a charlatan who fleeced Breillat of almost 700,000 Euros in 2007 and 2008. Abuse of Weakness compresses the dates a bit, but the important details are about the same. This enormous sum of money was mostly in the form of loans by the filmmaker, who was almost ruined by the loss. As a result, Rocancourt was convicted for abuse de faiblesse in 2012. Bad Love never got made, but now Breillat found new inspiration in spite of the confusion.
The bravery in showing one’s dirty laundry to the world in such a way is only surpassed by the filmmaker’s refusal to make her story even the slightest bit glamorous. Its style is exhaustingly repetitive, with countless shots of Maud trying to find her cell phone in bed. In some small way, Breillat is replicating the mundanity of living after a stroke. Boredom and frustration begin to emerge as possible motives for her loss of financial sanity. Rocancourt’s transformation into Vilko grants him physical strength but deprives him of finesse, making it much harder to believe that Maud/Breillat was simply too charmed by him to say no to his requests for money. Rapper Kool Shen is perfect casting, never devolving into simple, easy to digest brutishness. Hiring a first-time actor to co-star with Huppert was the boldest of gambles, but it paid off.
All of these elements add up to a fictional film about true events that isn’t interested in interpreting them. Breillat does not know exactly why she gave money to her con man, and neither does Maud. “It was me but it wasn’t me,” her character tries to explain. “But it wasn’t anyone else so it must have been me.” Abuse of Weakness trudges along with dedication but not with purpose. It lets the audience in on the secret life of a filmmaker’s frailty but in this hidden sanctum there are still no answers. This makes it almost like a vérité documentary without much heavy-handed editing. Draw your own conclusions, for Breillat has none to give you herself.