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For decades French writer-director Catherine Breillat has been creating challenging cinema, but her latest film is shocking in that it is a thinly veiled retelling of her own story. For those unfamiliar, Breillat suffered a severe stroke in 2004 that physically crippled her, leaving the left side of her body paralyzed. After this, she met infamous international conman Christophe Rocancourt, known also as the phony Rockefeller, and the two became unlikely friends. She planned to create a couple of films around him, but ultimately got fleeced for roughly $920,000. In 2009, Breillat shared her side of this incredible incident in her book Abus de faiblesse, or Abuse of Weakness. And now she’s translated that into a fascinating film.
Abuse of Weakness follows the known details of Breillat’s tragedy closely. It stars Isabelle Huppert as an esteemed and affluent filmmaker who is laid low by a stroke that paralyzes her left side, and must work through grueling physical therapy to learn to walk again. Afterwards, she meets a charismatic but dangerous thug, and as their flirtation and friendship grows, so do his requests for money. But rather than naming her heroine after herself, Breillat dubs her Maud Schoenberg, and renames Rocancourt as Vilko Piran (played by the burly Kool Shen). Oddly, the film itself makes no mention that it is a true story. It’s a surprising choice, and one that ultimately hurts the film that feels essentially unmoored without that context.
On its own, Maud’s story is strange. She enters into discussions with a known con man, a man who she saw on a talk show bragging about his manipulations with what she describes as a “bitter pride.” Yet, she invites him into her home and only smiles bemusedly as he stalks about it like a predator surveying its prey or attempt to impress her with his bad boy antics. Huppert and Shen are riveting together oncscreen. Exuding menace and rough sex, he is like a beast, ever circling her, taunting her, prodding her. Yet Maud, weak as she is physically, is never intimidated by him. Huppert staggers along, her body wretched and contorted, but her eyes ever alert and mouth slightly smug. She laughs as he blusters, and yet she writes this notorious crook bigger and bigger checks.
I wondered why, as she seemed together in all aspects of her recovery except for her trust in this criminal. Was it that she shares his bitter pride and so empathizes with his struggle? Or is it as the title suggests, did he abuse her weakness? Was she not as strong mentally as she seemed? Abuse of Weakness will give you no real answer. It is by no means a justification of Breillat’s bad choices in life. Instead, the film seems to offer only an explanation of their twisted relationship. Yes, in the beginning it was a sort of wicked attraction; in the end it was a toxic friendship. But in moments in the middle there were moments of kindness, connection, and grace. Ultimately, it seems bitter pride drives not only her characters here, but also Breillat herself. Who can only show us her side, but not explain her actions, leaving us with the ambivalent confession, “It was me, but it was not me.” Abuse of Weakness makes for an intriguing film, though not a terribly satisfying one without its greater context.
Abuse of Weakness is making its US premiere at the New York Film Festival. For our complete New York Film Festival coverage, click here.