By Christopher Schobert | The Playlist September 10, 2013 at 4:31PM
It’s unlikely a filmmaker brought a more personal narrative project to the Toronto International Film Festival than Catherine Breillat. The “Fat Girl” and “Romance” director’s 14th film, “Abuse of Weakness,” is a strange, unsettling and difficult-to-penetrate creation based on the most trying period of the acclaimed French filmmaker’s life. In 2004, Breillat suffered a sudden stroke, leading to a long recovery. A few years later, while still recovering, Breillat met a noted con artist named Christophe Rocancourt, an individual who would have a shockingly destructive effect on her life. She was interested in Rocancourt to play the lead in an upcoming film, but what occurred for close to two years did not involve the making of a movie. (In fact, that film never went before cameras.) Instead, she gave Rocancourt loans for almost 700,000 euros, wiping out her savings.
Rocancourt was eventually convicted of taking Breillat’s money and sent to prison, and Breillat turned the experience into a book chronicling her ordeal. Now comes “Abuse of Weakness,” with France’s greatest actress, Isabelle Huppert, in the lead. She plays Maud, a filmmaker who we first see writhing in pain in the middle of suffering a stroke. Breillat’s camera has always been unflinching, and in the film’s first section, it movingly observes the struggles of recovery. Soon, she returns home and ponders her next act. One night, she spots the thuggish, charismatic Villko (Kool Shen, a French rapper) on television, and she is spellbound. Maud invites him for a meeting, and he quickly strolls around as if he is at home—taking books, sprawling out on the sofa. He agrees to star in her film, and rather ominously tells her that he’ll be coming around…
And so he does. For the majority of the almost two-hour film, we watch as Villko comes and goes in and out of Maud’s life. Often, he seems caring, even aroused. Yet mostly he asks for money—money that Maud provides. She occasionally refers to “loans,” and at several junctures Villko speaks of paying her back. But the loans continue until Maud, still showing some effects of her stroke, can offer no more. Her money was gone. So does Breillat want the audience to see Maud—and, by extension, herself—as a victim? Watching the film, it never seems as if Maud is not in control of her mental state, or ever threatened by Villko. It is likely that the director herself does not quite know how to classify Maud. At the very end of the film, Maud tells her family, “It was me, and it wasn’t me.” The complexity of the situation, and the characters, is fascinating. Yet, as an audience member, it is hard not to identify with Maud’s adult children. They ask her hard questions she cannot answer.
“Abuse of Weakness” is structured rather simply, with a clear start and finish, yet must be one of the most unconventional con artist tales ever filmed. Perhaps too unconventional. It defies “liking” or “disliking,” instead merely presenting the situation without analysis or even great emotion. Yet it works, thanks to Breillat’s honesty and her talented performers. The film’s greatest coup is its casting, specifically Huppert. It is hard to think of another actress who could capture so many layers—confusion, intelligence, dependence, upset. And Kool Shen is every bit her equal, coming across as natural, likable and even charming. Huppert and Shen make many of their encounters humorous thanks to their odd rapport. Yet there is always a subtext, and a suggestion that something is very wrong here.
“Abuse of Weakness” is a frustrating experience, yet one that feels utterly unique and relentlessly watchable. For Breillat, it represents something of a comeback after the barely seen “Bluebeard” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” but more than that, it seems to be a film that she needed to make. If making “Abuse of Weakness” was a necessary step in Catherine Breillat’s recovery, then it surely ranks as one of the most important—if not the most important—projects of her career. That she was able to take the darkest period of her life and turn it into art shows that the director is even braver than we thought she was. [B+]