Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse): Toronto Review

Abuse of Weakness TIFF Still - H 2013

Abuse of Weakness TIFF Still - H 2013

A fictional though almost documentary-like exploration of how a physically incapacitated Breillat signed away her life savings to a known con man.

French auteur and provocateur Catherine Breillat casts Isabelle Huppert as herself in an autobiographical film that co-stars rapper Kool Shen.

TORONTO -- French filmmaker Catherine Breillat makes her most personal film yet with Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse), a largely autobiographical account of the filmmaker’s stroke, which left her partially paralyzed, and how a notorious con man she had lined up for her first post-hospital film project swindled her out of a lot of money.

Based on Breillat’s book of the same title, Abuse of Weakness (a French legal term) casts Isabelle Huppert as the film director Maud, Breillat’s alter ego, and French rapper Kool Shen as Vilko, a character based on Christophe Roconcourt, the man who managed to get thousands of dollars from Breillat for business ventures and the repeated promise he would eventually pay it all back. Like in all of the director’s work, psychologically reductive readings of the characters are absent, though intriguing performances give audiences a way into the material.

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Breillat has a small but loyal following and her unusual pairing with a star of Huppert’s caliber has already secured high-profile slots at the Toronto, New York and London festivals. It should also pique the interest of boutique distributors.

Though closely based on reality, Breillat injects the proceedings with a small dose of fiction, perhaps to give her the possibility to more objectively direct this very personal story. Thus, Maud’s name is different, the story’s set in Brussels, Belgium, and Huppert looks nothing like the raven-haired Breillat (though there’s an eerie early scene where the director and Maud, both stroke victims, slowly shuffle past each other in a hospital corridor). Interestingly (except perhaps commercially), the feature seems less an exercise in catharsis than an almost documentary-like exploration of the facts that somehow led Breillat to be so irrationally kind and complacent toward someone who was clearly not making rational demands.

In the first reel, Maud finds herself hospitalized after a brain hemorrhage, can’t see colors or count anymore and has a lot of problems moving one side of her body (Huppert's frighteningly convincing here). When she’s a bit better, she moves back into her loft, though she still needs help to do everyday chores as the problems with moving her arm and hand persist. This dependence is quickly noted by Vilko, a crook who swindled people out of millions and whom Maud is thinking of casting in her next film just because he has the right charisma. “I’ll be around often,” he says, right after Maud has explained she doesn’t hang out with her actors before the shoot.

Maud’s family is mostly absent even after she’s been reduced to a shadow of her former physical self and there’s a sense that Vilko, simply by being present, filled a void. There is no sexual component to their relationship -- an awkward kiss from the married Vilko is quickly dismissed -- but there’s an attraction that definitely has a corporal element, as Maud’s weak body needs the help of Vilko’s muscular frame.

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“It was me and it wasn’t me,” explains the director after she’s signed away all her life savings to Vilko in a dozen or so checks. Did she feel she had to compensate him for simply being there and allowing her to continue on living or did she unconsciously want to be ruined by him (she was aware of his background, after all)? These questions are never fully answered, though Huppert’s impressively layered and intensely physical performance -- no recent film comes to mind where so much of the petite actress was seen full-frame -- beautifully manages to suggest that Maud was at least as guilty as Vilko was, even if she theoretically was the weaker of the two.

Opposite her, Kool Shen is an imposing presence whose blend of coarseness and kindness offers exactly what Maud needs. “There needs to be at least one advantage to being handicapped,” Maud says to Vilko after he’s told her she wants to turn men into slaves, and there’s a sense that for Breillat, Vilko/Christophe embodied the idea of the submissive but still macho male that was at the service of a self-determining woman, though the price she paid for it turned out to be a steep one.

Further keeping things personal, Breillat's not only one of the two credited costume designers but also shipped an entire container of her personal books and furniture to Belgium to decorate Maud’s house.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Masters)
Production companies: Flach Film Production, Iris Films, Iris Productions Deutschland
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino, Christophe Sermet, Ronald Leclerq
Writer-Director: Catherine Breillat, screenplay based on Breillat’s book
Producer: Jean-François Lepetit
Co-producer: Nicolas Steil
Director of photography: Alain Marcoen
Production designer: Pierre-Francois Limbosch
Music: Didier Lockwood
Costume designers: Catherine Breillat, Francois Juge
Editor: Pascale Chavance
Sales: Rezo Films
No rating, 98 minutes.