Originally posted on Criterion Cast October 12th, 2013
One of the most appealing things about the films of Catherine Breillat, if describing her work as such is possible, is the way she refuses to psychoanalyze her own characters. Her films are often about the unknowable actions (or lack thereof) of people, particularly women. These actions (or lack thereof) tend to be rooted in the masochistic, the transgressive, or the incomprehensible. That predilection for the unknowable sometimes offsets a stationary structure that can overtake her films. Abuse of Weakness heads into this territory at times, introducing a complex bond between two people but circling over it again and again instead of taking it in any direction. It comes back around for a remarkable final scene, but what really makes Abuse of Weakness is the contextual knowledge that it is autobiographical, resulting in a film both chillingly revealing and purposely opaque.
In 2004 Catherine Breillat suffered a stroke. Three years later she met a known con man named Christophe Ranconcourt who she wanted to star in her next film. Periodically over the next two years she loaned him almost all of her money. This is the outline used for Abuse of Weakness with Maud (Isabelle Huppert) and Vilko (Kool Shen) playing director and con man respectively.
The film is mostly about Maud’s relationship with Vilko, but it begins with a wrenching depiction of the initial onset of her stroke. The stark-white visuals and horror-tweaked strings emphasize bodily contortion and the ceaseless willfulness to have physical agency within oneself. Maud is a fighter, someone who can bounce back from the brink of paralysis no matter what it takes. Isabelle Huppert never lets us forget the minute effort involved in this kind of daily existence, from its first jolting presence to its long-lasting impediments.
Breillat decides to interlope the story of Maud’s stroke, and the incomprehensible powerlessness that comes with it, with the story of the duplicitous Vilko. This establishes separate physical and emotional branches to their locked-in power play, a long-standing mutual attachment containing acknowledged manipulation and needs from both sides. Vilko is a bulging presence, seemingly having the physical upper hand, but the way Maud relies on him for everyday tasks puts her partly in control as well. Why? Vilko often mentions that he is her slave and that she enjoys getting men to do things for her. She has a tendency to milk her impairment as a source of joyful command.
On an emotional level Maud has the unreachable veneer that Isabelle Huppert has mastered as her signature manner. The script puts Maud at a severe distance from her family and loved ones; she seemingly spends much of her time in Vilko’s company. She uses coy spurts of laughter as a defense mechanism and he is alternately frustrated and captivated by his inability to provoke a reaction from her. Vilko is a pet project for Maud, someone dangerous and unapologetic, someone she wants in her life for better or worse. And so in this way she apparently has an at-arms-length emotional upper-hand. Then it gets away from her. It goes without saying that though their bond never crosses into the sexual, this being a Breillat film, and dealing with a complicated sadomasochistic-like power-play between a man and woman, the undertones are always cautiously present.
Maud casually dispensing her money reveals that Vilko is in control of far more than she thinks. Part of what makes this dynamic compelling is that he is introduced to Maud (and us) as a semi-famous con man. Then Vilko’s intentions become entirely transparent to the audience, but arguably not to Maud. In the beginning we are thrown in the trenches of her profound physical suffering; the lack of control strikes right through us and we are thus dialed into her experience. The transparency of Vilko’s intentions cuts us off from Maud, leaving us to watch from a distance as draining financial transactions become commonplace.
Maud is both swindled victim and willing participant. Breillat offers up her own autobiographical tale of fiction with the detached presentation she is known for. We understand what Maud and Vilko get out of each other but her acquiescence defies explanation with a such-as-it-is stamp I found brave and, though it may not immediately seem so, honest.