Isabelle Huppert in 'Abuse of Weakness'
Isabelle Huppert in 'Abuse of Weakness'

The title of the film may be “Abuse of Weakness,” but Isabelle Huppert’s performance as a filmmaker who suffers a stroke and then gets willingly conned by an ex-con is nothing but strong and steely-nerved. Which, of course, is to be expected from one of film’s best living actresses.

Directed with suitable chilliness by Catherine Breillat, and based on an ordeal she herself went through, the film follows successful director Maud (Huppert), who awakens one day to a living nightmare: she can’t feel half of her body or, as she tells the emergency line operator, “half of my body is dead.” After going through lengthy and painful therapy to become basically functional again -- she can finally speak, and hobble around with the help of orthopedic boots -- she spots a man, Vilko (rapper Kool Shen) on television, a criminal recently released from a 12-year prison stint, who she becomes obsessed with the idea of starring in her next film.

Abuse of Weakness

Thus begins a courting process where Maud is led down the garden path. She begins spending excessive amounts of time with the stone-faced man, and even, at his unconvincing request, writing him a check for a large sum of money. Then one check turns into several.

If Maud’s gullibility doesn’t feel entirely plausible -- nor, for that matter, does the slightly wooden Shen give us reason to understand why a successful woman would become so thoroughly devoted to him -- Huppert’s commitment to the role makes up for it. Huppert is the master of characters with perverse driving forces -- think of her cruel, near-insane piano teacher in Michael Haneke’s film of the same title, or her relentlessly oblivious coffee plantation owner in Claire Denis’s “White Material.” These women can’t very well explain why they do what they do. They are more physical embodiments of an insatiable id. As Maud says in the film’s powerful closing scene, trying to rationalize why she drained her bank account for an irascible hood: “I was myself, yet I wasn’t myself.”

Huppert also, by the way, gives Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour” a run for her money in terms of realistically portraying the physical tolls of a stroke. As Huppert contorts her slack-jawed mouth and uncontrollably quivers her clenched left hand, while taking more than a couple painful-looking tumbles as she loses balance while walking, we understand that “Abuse of Weakness” is as much about body horror as it is anything else. (A sparingly used, discordant violin score heightens the palpable sense of horror.) When the body goes, what kind of an identity crisis takes over? Maud wakes up one morning and can’t access the body she’s living inside -- and, slowly, she can’t comprehend the actions she’s taking, even as she signs her name on the dotted line. 

"Abuse of Weakness" had its West Coast premiere at the ColCoa Film Festival, and plays the San Francisco International Film Festival. It has stateside distribution with Strand Releasing, but no day-and-date yet.