In 2004, Catherine Breillat, the filmmaker known for such graphic feminist provocations as “Fat Girl” (2001) and “Anatomy of Hell” (2004), suffered a stroke. After lengthy rehabilitation, she was able to return to work, and insisted on casting con man Christopher Rocancourt in her new film. A year-and-a-half later, Rocancourt had bilked her out of around 700,000 euros, in what Breillat has described as the worst experience of her life, even worse than the stroke itself.
It also has inspired one of her best movies, in which she explores without jargon or shock tactics some of her trademark topics: sex, power, money, ambition, and loneliness. And, of course, the irritating intrusiveness of a buzzing cellphone at 4 a.m.
It begins with a scene reminiscent of the undulant title drapery filling the screen in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986). The camera tilts up, revealing Maud (Isabelle Huppert), a movie director not unlike Breillat, under a bed sheet. But something is wrong. Maud contorts into the painful configurations of a bad performance artist and drops to the floor.
“It was a year before I realized I had a stroke,” says Maud in a voice-over. Time passes in this movie as someone with a brain trauma might experience it, in big chunks with jarring, elliptical edits that task the viewer with figuring out the missing pieces. In one scene Maud is undergoing torturous speech and physical therapy. In the next she can talk clearly and walks with a cane, her body twisted, but again asserting her directorial imperiousness. Huppert’s amazing performance not only masters the physical rigors and deformations of her character, but more importantly captures her cold capriciousness and the enigmatic innocence that one of Maud’s friend’s labels “perverse.”
That’s after Maud has adopted her idée fixe of casting Vilko — a swindler she spots shilling his memoirs on a talk show — in her new movie. Played by French rapper Kool Shen, Vilko combines a simian brutishness with a childlike petulance, a formula that suckers can’t seem to resist. He also displays tenderness as he ingratiates into Maud’s life, calling her constantly, taking on the role of her personal assistant, helping her perform the mundane tasks impossible for someone who can’t move a limb unless she actually sees it. He is especially adept at helping her sign checks made out to him, which Maud does with metronomic regularity, barely listening to Vilko’s bogus explanations and reassurances. Their relationship devolves into a folie à deux, repetitious and with diminishing returns.
The film’s title refers to the French legal term for taking advantage of a person of diminished capacity. The story, though, suggests other interpretations. Perhaps Maud’s misfortune is not due to her weakness but to her insistence on strength, on defying common sense and her friends’ advice to pursue her project with Vilko to the end. Or it could suggest that rather than Vilko taking advantage of Maud’s weakness, she uses her weakness to manipulate him. Like all realistic movies about human relationships, this one has no answers but adheres to the famous line in Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” (1939): “Everyone has their reasons.”
“Abuse of Weakness” even goes a step further.
“It was me,” says Maud in an attempt to account for her folly. “And it wasn’t me.”
By the end of the movie, that explanation seems as reasonable as any.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.