In 2004, French director Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl, The Last Mistress) suffered a massive stroke that left one side of her body paralyzed. In 2007, she met a con man that would eventually bilk her out of over 700,000 Euros. In 2009, she wrote a book about the experience. In 2012, con can Christopher Rocancourt was convicted of the crime and sent to prison. In 2013, she made a movie about it.
Understanding that the story of Abuse of Weakness (or “abus de faiblesse,” a French legal term that perfectly describes the film at hand) is actually Breillat’s story isn’t essential to either the film’s power or strength, but it sure helps clarify some things (a few of which haven’t been clarified in Breillat’s own life). Isabelle Huppert stars as bawdy, whipsmart Maud, the film’s version of Breillat, who also happens to be a French director with a signature style (at one point, her work is compared to porn). Within the film’s opening seconds, Maud is in the throes of a stroke, all while tucked into the seeming safety of her own sleigh bed. It’s evident almost immediately that Huppert is about to embark on a true full body performance, and the actress delivers in spades – her body contortions, facial expressions, and lack of mobility are never less than entirely believable, and the result is a terrifyingly uncomfortable film that never lets up on either its audience or its leading lady.
Held in a local hospital, Maud struggles to get out of the cold, sterile, quiet, and white world she’s been thrust into, but despite her overwhelmingly stubborn nature, she never seems entirely present or participatory in her own healing. She demands things from others, leans on them, yells at them, consistently relies on her ever-present cell phone, screams bloody murder during therapy, and seems to conquer obstacles seemingly in spite of herself. Maud’s first big request post-stroke is to laugh, she can’t seem to do it anymore, and she begs her speech therapist to help. She doesn’t, and Huppert spends the rest of the film awkwardly squeaking out overly loud and fake-sounding chuckles. Maud will laugh, goddammit, even if it’s not for real, even if there’s nothing to laugh about.
Finally released (and somewhat healed), Maud weakly attempts to rebuild her life, eventually focusing all her attentions and affections on, of all things, a professional con man she sees on late night television. Convinced that Vilko Piran (Kool Shen), a bit of a celebrity thanks to his tell-all memoir, is the right fit for the leading role in her next film, Maud requests his presence for a meeting at her own home. In many ways, he never quite leaves. Taken in by his rough charms, Maud and Vilko soon become inseparable, even though it’s obvious to anyone with any sort of sense that he’s taking her for a ride (how obvious? So obvious that his intentions are plain before he even asks Maud for the first in a long string of checks she can’t afford to write).
The film is so relentlessly claustrophobic that it all but begs for an actual physical reaction from its audience. The physical elements of Huppert’s performance alone are primed to stir reactions – nerves, nausea, disbelief – but paired with the boggling bilking that Vilko subjects the apparently lucid and complicit Maud to, it’s hard to get out of the theater without breaking into a cold sweat. It’s a consuming, incredibly well-crafted experience, and the sort that few people will ever feel the need to endure again.
Breillat’s telling of her own story is remarkably even and free of judgments, despite the fact that its most basic elements handily implicate everyone involved. Who is most at fault here? Maud, who can only explain her actions as being “me, but it wasn’t me”? Vilko, a career criminal without remorse? Maud’ s children who never step in, despite plenty of signs that something is very amiss? Her dedicated assistant who demands she break ties with Vilko just one time? All of them are to blame, but Abuse of Weakness never tries to make that the thrust of its thrilling, terrifying existence.
The Upside: Isabelle Huppert gives a career best performance as Maud, its maddening and richly crafted emotional landscape is entirely immersive, it doesn’t project opinions on a story that would be very easy to.
The Downside: The film is so fully consuming that it’s frequently just plain uncomfortable, its middle act drags on for seeming hours, Shen’s performance can’t reach the heights of Huppert’s.
On the Side: Bruno Lopes (aka Kool Shen) is one of France’s most prolific and famous rappers and producers. He’s also well known for his break dancing abilities and skills as a graffiti artist.