'Abuse of Weakness'
'Abuse of Weakness'

Isabelle Huppert is something of an enigma. The Cannes and Cesar-winning actress plays women whose strength resides in some depraved inner core. And that perversity threatens to drive her characters deep into the void, as in Haneke's "The Piano Teacher," or into the light as in her new film with Catherine Breillat, "Abuse of Weakness."

Huppert is Maud, a stand-in for Breillat who, in 2007, suffered a serious brain hemorrhage that left her physically paralyzed -- but not creatively bankrupt. Breillat did, however, nearly go bankrupt in the literal sense when, while developing a project during recovery, she pursued an infamous con-man for a lead role. Breillat willingly threw herself into a kind of S&M relationship with this man -- complete with strappy leather boots! -- cutting checks for the hood's dubious investments, and ultimately bankrolling his criminal lifestyle while he nursed her broken body.

"I've sunk like the Titanic," says Maud, half-paralyzed and strapped to a hospital bed. "But when I return, I'll be an atomic bomb." It's with this steely will to live that Huppert plays the Breillat surrogate. While watching Maud get duped again and again by this charming loser (played by Kool Shen) is almost as painful as, say, watching a piano teacher mutilate herself in a bathtub, Huppert makes Maud's (and Breillat's) downward spiral sympathetic. In this folie-a-deux, he fulfills some unknowable need in her. It's about manipulation and control, as all acting and directing is.

Back in August, at the delirious early hour of 7AM, I spoke to Huppert on the phone from her hotel in New York, where she's currently doing French playwright maudit Jean Genet's "The Maids" on Broadway. Her appearance alongside Cate Blanchett in this marvelously arch, bruising and histrionic classic is something of a fever dream for fans of high-pitch, women-on-the-brink performances. (Original interview below.)

"Abuse of Weakness" played theaters in summer 2014 via Strand Releasing and is now streaming on Netflix Instant.

Ryan Lattanzio: You're in New York doing "The Maids" with Cate Blanchett. Which of the sisters do you play?

Abuse of Weakness

Isabelle Huppert: I play Solange. 

That's one of my favorite plays. And she reminds me of other women you've played.

Obviously. Yes, and of course, there was “La Ceremonie” by Chabrol. Although it was based on the Ruth Rendell book, the book itself was largely, widely inspired by the Papin sisters' story and, then, "The Maids."

What's it like to return to that material again?

It’s very interesting. It’s sort of fun. It’s nice to do a piece like this in several places. Once you do it the second time, even the third time, the fact that you change venues, you change places, it rejuvenates you. You find lots of things you had not found in the first place. And, all of a sudden the meaning of certain lines makes more sense than at the beginning. It’s not at all like you repeat yourself. On the contrary, you feel like you invent new things. 

You've never worked with Catherine Breillat before. It seems like such an obvious collaboration. What drew you to the role of Maud and working with Breillat, at last? 

Well, I thought it was the right moment, with the right script, with the right situation, the right role. Yes, we have been wanting to work together for years. She came to me with a couple of pieces and, for various reasons, it didn’t happen before. This time, when she first talked to me just about the idea of doing a film out of that story -- actually, I think her book had been published already -- she asked me to do it and, yes, I wanted to do it. I had no doubt about that.

Huppert in 'The Piano Teacher'
Huppert in 'The Piano Teacher'

You often play women driven by unexplainable perversity. I’m thinking, of course, of “The Piano Teacher,” "Merci Pour Le Chocolat," "White Material" and so many others. What was different and challenging about "Abuse of Weakness"?

Well, in this case of course, the biggest challenge, if you can call it that, is that the primary definition of the role is her disabled physicality. She has the leftovers of a stroke. She had a stroke, therefore she limps and, at the beginning, she speaks as paralyzed and is paralyzed. And, the part is largely defined by this physical particularity, and then by her abuse, which is her weakness. Because, the movie is called “Abuse of Weakness,” and that is precisely what the whole story is about.

Because of that weakness, the way she meets that man, at the same time he is going to support her but also take advantage of her. Of course, the game would be only one-dimensional if it were just for that. But, because she is a director, when she meets him, she wants him as an actor. And, as a director, you can do whatever you want with an actor. You can manipulate him, you have power over him. Right away, this kind of relationship arises between them: she as a director, he as an actor, and all that that implies between an actor and a director. And, plus, she is a woman and he is a man. So, it is a very complex relationship that grows with this objective fact that she is weak and he is strong. So, that’s what it is about. 

Was Catherine resistant at all to hand over this vulnerable, dark side of herself to you?

She has this extraordinary ability to create a distance with her problem, if I can call it that, with what happened to her. Previously she had written the book, and then the movie, and the movie is an object of fiction. And, so she was able to create and use me, not as a double, because I was a fiction character. There was no sentimentalism. There was no embarrassment. I was just literally imitating her way of walking, her way of talking at the beginning, because I had seen Catherine just after the stroke happened. So, I was able to reproduce her body language and there was no embarrassment whatsoever. We were doing a movie. As she quite rightly puts it: “I didn’t do a movie about myself. I did a movie by myself.” You know, it’s a movie by Catherine Breillat. So, it means she signed it as a creative person, as an artist, as a director. But, it’s not a documentary about Catherine. So, it really encouraged us to create that distance and to be as free as possible with this material, as it was pure fiction.