I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.
The title of French director Catherine Breillat’s excellent film, Abuse Of Weakness (Abus De Faiblesse) (France, 2013), is taken from legal terminology; it’s a designation of law designed to protect people of diminished capacity from being manipulated, misrepresented or swindled by opportunists. (It’s a fascinating law that is intermingling, for better or worse, with parallel prosecutions against brainwashing scams and religious cults.) Nicolas Sarkozy, and the de Védrines family, have both had experience in the application of this law, and so, incidentally, has Catherine Breillat. Breillat, like her character here, suffered a debilitating brain hemorrhage, and went through grueling physical therapy (and a fair amount of personal isolation) in order to fight her way back to something like her previous creative prowess. Her swindler’s name was Christophe Rocancourt, who, like his filmed counterpart, was already well-known as a scoundrel, and yet continued his conning exploits well after his initial scandals over a long course of years.
How much of the film portrays the real story, and how much of it is fictionalized-to-her-purposes, of course, is the variable here. We witness the traumatic onset of film director Maud Shainberg’s (Isabelle Huppert) debilitating hemorrhagic stroke before we really know anything else about her – she’s obviously fairly successful, living in a spacious loft-like home, with a number of filmmaking administrative assistants and co-producers available to her. But contact with her direct family – brother, sister, her own child – had been erratic even before her attack, and seems no less tenable after. Resuming work on an ongoing project soon after her rehab, Maud sees the semi-legendary swindler Vilko Piram (French rapper Kool Shen) on a TV talk show, and is taken by his confident air of self-possession and his stern refusal to show remorse for his crimes. He has just emerged from a lengthy jail sentence – that’s done, it’s behind him, and he’s moving forward now. Maud resolves that this is the guy she needs for her film, and shortly afterwards meets up with him at her loft. He agrees to perform in the film (a dark portrayal of a sexual relationship laced with cruelty and violence – in other words, a Catherine Breillat film…), and declares that he’ll be a frequent visitor day-to-day while the project is coming together.
Maud is no pushover, though – she constantly works the line between desperately depending on the help of others and taking manipulative advantage of that same help. Her physical difficulties are profound, and yet she charges forth from place-to-place undaunted. Stairs and chairs are fraught with danger – standing and sitting are stable, but any unbalanced stage in between could result in a nasty fall. Yet, once standing, she hobbles along precariously quickly, at times practically skipping on one leg. When Vilko helps her down stairs, or lifts her into a chair, she’s practically panic-stricken with fear; afterwards, she taunts him about all of the things she talks him into doing for her.
Vilko, on the other hand, doesn’t work nearly as hard, or in such gamesmanlike fashion, as Maud. He knows how to present an identity, a presence, that’s rock-solid, almost irreproachable. He creates a world around himself (mostly fictional) where he’s always in the middle of four or five big projects – big money and big personal stakes. Dealing with Maud is just another ball he keeps in the air. For example, he suggests taking co-author credit for Maud’s next book – his notoriety will increase sales for her, and associating with her work will enhance his socio-cultural credibility. Everything he suggests is always targeted at the Bigger Context, the Bigger Mutual Benefit, even though, unbeknownst to the mark, it doesn’t exist. Two other ‘projects’ have left him illiquid – cut me a check and I’ll repay you next week when the other deal cashes in. If you come with me for a day-trip to Switzerland, I can land a million euros for both of us. You had a relapse and couldn’t go? You cost us money. Cut me a check for my trouble. I’ve got a wife and kid to support. Maud thinks she’s constructing mutual interests between them to suit her purposes. But Vilko knows ‘mutual interest’ is already there, from the start, and he plays her like a violin – cutting him checks almost becomes reflexive to her. But she’s also renovating her home, and cutting check after check to her contractors as well. Vilko, ironically, asks her if she can really afford this – “I wanted a garden,” she shrugs.
Are these decisions and activities that Maud would normally be inclined to commit to, or is there a lot of unconscious overcompensation happening here due to her diminished circumstances? Many of us have had elderly family members, or severely disadvantaged friends and acquaintances, whom have fallen prey to bad investments, performed ill-conceived financial favors, fabricated untenable ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes, or spent money they didn’t have on TV or radio deals that just seemed too ‘good’ to pass up. We’re stunned, and a little embarrassed, that their judgment has gone so seemingly astray. But Breillat also takes great pains to analyze the foundations of Maud’s behavior outside of her present trauma – the insistent indulgence of her creative prerogatives, and the counter-cultural frisson of meeting the lower-class Arabic Bad Boy striver, putting herself at his mercy while presuming to mold him to what she needs. I don’t think it was an arbitrary decision to give her protagonist a Jewish last name – it’s just another of the tiny socio-psychological land mines that Breillat loves to scatter her narrative landscape with.
Isabelle Huppert is superb here, both in the thoroughness of her character’s conception and the actual physical rigor she commits to the role – she’s never a victim, never an outright sucker, and her Maud Shainberg is a fascinating and energetic woman with real gravity, intelligence and a sense of humor. And Kool Shen, while exhibiting little if any actorly flexibility, is nonetheless well-cast here – he fills his function in the narrative credibly and seamlessly. Eventually, of course, Maud finds herself at the end of any financial resources of any kind. Surrounded by her astonished family at the film’s conclusion, she can only say “It was me, but it wasn’t me. No one else spent that money, so it was me. It was me, but it wasn’t me.” Breillat, who has made a fascinating and provocative film here, won a pretty sizable judgment from Christophe Rocancourt in the real world, and he’s in jail now. The fictionalized Vilko is the obvious villain here, but we can’t help imagining what his response might be: “It was her, it was always her.” And I can’t help but think that, in an odd way, Breillat might not disagree with him.