It’s befitting of Catherine Breillat’s semi-autobiographical latest, Abuse Of Weakness, that its title should be both an encapsulation and meta-commentary on her oeuvre to date; her films equally depict an abuse of weakness – usually between male aggressors and unsettled females – and exhibit one, with her direction of young women feeling exploitative at the best of times and plainly cruel at its worst. But neither is this her first self-referential tale – 2002’s Sex Is Comedy is about a filmmaker struggling to direct two actors in an uncomfortably graphic sex scene, recreating the conditions of her previous À ma sœur! and re-casting its star, Roxanne Mesquida, in the lead role.
Of course, Breillat’s films are packed with self’s – importance and aggrandization chief among them – and it’s worth addressing at this point my previous hatred of her work. If Anatomy Of Hell can’t be claimed as the worst film I’ve ever seen, it is only for the level of technical competence she achieves in its making. But no film since has prompted such physical revulsion from me, its tawdry sexual politics and pompous staging coming off like the work of a fifth-grader who has too quickly gobbled up texts on feminism and the avant-garde.
It was only the fascination of seeing my least favourite director working with perhaps the greatest actress alive, Isabelle Huppert, that drew me to Abuse Of Weakness, and I’m glad it did – the film finds Breillat in good humour, standing naked and starkly reflective behind her camera. Huppert becomes her physical and emotional analog, and in devastating detail portrays the process of a woman searching for her artistic impulse after a life-altering stroke. For once Breillat’s obsession with self is absolutely the point – she is self-aware, self-critical, self-destructive.
Not only that, but the director who not so long ago declared herself “the pariah of French cinema” is refreshingly self-mocking, with one character expressing a dubiousness about working with her because she “only makes porn“. In fact, Huppert even has a great scene where she pitches the idea for a movie about an obsessive actress who is killed and mutilated by the man in her gaze, and I couldn’t help but be endeared by Breillat’s self-deprecation (Endearing! Breillat!)
The film opens with the chilling tremor of a horror score over a shot of creamy white; the camera pans up and reveals Huppert in bed, writhing and struggling to breathe. She calls the hospital and tells the operator that half of her body is dead. “You’re asking for help“, comes the reply, “so you can’t be dead.“ It’s a flash of surrealism which quickly lurches into a prolonged sequence of Huppert’s rehabilitation, as she once again learns to walk, talk and, most importantly, laugh.
These sequences are acted with such conviction that they become hypnotic, and though actors will often tell you that their best work is their most immersive, the roles where you don’t notice the acting for its utterly convincing representation of a human life, Huppert is so good that it’s all but impossible not to remove yourself from the drama to admire her craft, her emotional dedication and range – if such a thing is possible, she’s almost too good to maintain the film’s reality.
It turns out that Maud (Huppert) has suffered a brain hemorrhage and stroke, and once back on her feet she begins work on a new project with the temperamental ex-crook Vilko (rapper Kool Shen), a man she describes as boasting “bitter pride“. He says he will act in her movie if he likes the ending, and upon hearing the idea about the beaten actress he accepts. His demeanor is at first unnerving, but the capricious and greedy man is a walking contradiction, begging Maud for attention and money but living a simple home life with a wife and child whom he clearly loves, yet somewhat neglects.
The troubling relationship which emerges between them is packed with ambiguity, to some extent working as a power-play between people whose personalities harmonize all to well, and to each party’s disadvantage – Vilko is manipulative and enigmatic, and Maud can’t help but be charmed, keeping up with his demands. Perhaps she only does so because of her physical condition and her need for aid, and perhaps his is a genuine addiction (we never actually see Vilko spending any of the money Maud loans him), but their reasons remain frustratingly elusive. What we are left with is a portrait of co-dependent ruin; the characters live independent lives, and for a long time Maud comically patronizes Vilko about his constant calling, but the truth is that they come to become almost one person, their routines, ambitions and finances completely in sync.
Given my previous relationship with her work, to say that Abuse Of Weakness is Breillat’s best film would be something of a back-handed compliment. Truthfully it’s a maturation of theme and craft for its maker, a director finally settling into her own skin. Here is a woman healed, distinctive and brave. It’s the biggest and best surprise of the festival.
Director: Catherine Breillat
Writer: Catherine Breillat
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino
Runtime: 105 min
Country: France, Germany, Belgium