Abuse of Weakness, currently screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, reflects on French director Catherine Breillat’s experience of being swindled by con-man Christophe Rocancourt. The film follows the lead character - Breillat’s double, a renowned film director named Maud, played by Isabelle Huppert – from the opening scene, in which she has a stroke, through her relationship with Rocancourt to her closing recognition that he has defrauded her of almost 700,000 euros. As it follows this path, Abuse of Weakness weaves together elements of autobiography and visual and literary history.
As Breillat put it when I conducted a director Q&A at MIFF last weekend, the film relies on “truth and lies” to depict intimate and familial relationships that transcend binaries of victim and villain. As with all of Breillat’s cinema, this film is sophisticated and challenging, providing affective and empathic connections to characters, symbols and scenarios.
The body, out of control
Abuse of Weakness opens with a crumpled swathe of white sheets, a muted colour palette designed to express coldness and isolation. Signs of movement can be detected beneath the sheets, but rather than the languid, fluid movement of sleep, this is a distressed agitation.
Maud (Isabelle Huppert) feels her left arm as if it is disconnected from her body. She pounds it in an effort to register the sensation. Maud collapses onto the ground as she tries to get out of bed. A chair falls over her and traps her further.
All is in silence until the soundtrack gradually rises and Maud calls for an ambulance, explaining to the operator that “half of my body is dead”. The operator misunderstands her, responding that she can’t be dead because she wouldn’t be able to speak to her.
Abuse of Weakness continues Breillat’s commitment to the development of highly symbolic cinema. Maud’s complexion is opalescent. Her pallid, translucent skin is framed by Titian hair. Her face looks as pale as the sheets on the bed, which are as white the walls in the hospital. Breillat has coded Maud as a contemporary form of Botticelli’s Venus.
Sounds of the beeping heart monitor dominate as her family watch from outside the room. As with many of Breillat’s narratives, the feminine voice is articulated explicitly and it drives the narrative. Maud’s voiceover mentions that she was told that she had experienced a massive brain hemorrhage, but she didn’t hear this, or didn’t understand it for a year. Breillat herself had a stroke in 2004 and this film draws extensively on her experiences then and afterwards.
This film is as much about the internal struggle with the body as it is about external relationships. The camera traces Maud’s attempts to control limbs that move involuntarily, to prise her fingers out from the clenched fist that has become the default gesture. In hospital she practises pronouncing “eee” and “ooo” sounds in order to stretch her lips. Maud also sees colours that are not accurately reflected in the world.
The fiction of the film and the actuality of Catherine Breillat’s experience intersect in a fleeting instant where the director can be seen dressed in black, walking unsteadily down the corridor of the hospital. Maud and Catherine are on the same path here – but they are opposed in their direction.
The struggle is not without lightness and determination. There is a lot of laughing amid the frustration. The film shows Maud returning to her work as film director, art director, costume designer – and designer of her own long, black, chrome-studded orthopaedic boots.
Abuse of Weakness prioritises the feminine point of view and affords it the power of direction. Maud is captivated by con-man Vilko Piran (Kool Shen) when she watches him talking candidly about his crimes in a television interview.
She calls her assistant Ezzé (Christophe Sermet) and asks him to watch as well. She decides that he should star in her next film. Vilko morphs from the flat-screen televisual image, moving into the depth of the cinematic frame as he enters Maud’s home to discuss the film.
During their first meeting, he climbs the stepladder and steps along her bookshelf like a cat. He says that he wants to catch up on reading, but he has never bought a book in his life, he just steals them.
From the beginning, Maud and Vilko are shot in separate frames. Their conversation is connected uneasily and contrasts are highlighted by positioning each against either black or white backgrounds. Initially it is an uneasy alliance, but Vilko agrees to do the film “if the ending is good”.
Their relationship is chaste and intimate, illicit and exciting. Vilko compares them to “Bonnie and Clyde”. They are described as “like two live hand grenades”. While she tells him that it is not her practice to see her actors before the film begins production, he counters with the pronouncement that “you’re gonna see a lot of me”.
When he visits next, he is wearing a Dior suit. She watches him pace and he confesses, “you’ve made me permanently anguished”. Maud repeatedly refuses to allow Vilko to sleep in her bed, assigning him to a single cot with a foam mattress instead.
Moments of tenderness are juxtaposed with expressions of violence. Vilko picks up Maud and carries her like a bride – but he also strikes her, abandons her and defrauds her of almost 700,000 euros.
The hand that signs the cheques
Breillat’s film repeats and varies the intimate (but troubling) symbolic gesture of Vilko holding open Maud’s chequebook as she writes and signs her name. While Jean-Luc Godard’s film Tout Va Bien (1972) used a montage of cheques to signify the film as commodity, the repetition of images that form the narrative sequence of exchange in Abuse of Weakness represents Vilko’s increasing influence over Maud as well as her physical decline. She becomes unable to write and sign her name and he takes over.
Abuse of Weakness treats confronting, unspoken issues with an intense and sometimes disturbing clarity. It represents the family and individuals as atomised and divided.
The family who wait outside the hospital room at the beginning of the film never enter the space to provide support. Maud’s mother doesn’t recognise her while visiting her in a nursing home. The body in decline is depicted symbolically when the grandmother is asked to stop messing with her diaper.
In the end, Maud attends a family meeting to discuss her financial situation. When asked what was special about Vilko, Maud replies, “he turned up”.
The dialogue reflects back on the family and their absence. Finally, in a revealing moment, Maud is filmed in a close-up that shows the detail of her red-rimmed eyes. She acknowledges her responsibility in the new reality that she inhabits, saying clearly: “I verified my expenses. I was lucid … I did realise it, but it didn’t matter … it was me and it wasn’t me.”