Catherine Breillat’s films have always been autobiographical, often painfully so, and yet “Abuse of Weakness” cuts even closer to the marrow than the rest. Featuring iron-nerved Isabelle Huppert as the director’s onscreen equivalent, a partly crippled French helmer named Maud, the uneasy-making story re-creates a situation in which the helmer cast a known con man to star in her next film, only to be swindled by him in the process. Between its perverse power games and co-dependent sadomasochism, the almost frigidly unsentimental pic seems an ideal double bill with Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur,” but will likely prove too personal to attract much of an audience.
Huppert’s involvement marks something of a special occasion for Breillat, who typically prefers to work with lesser-known or completely non-professional actors — a predilection that got the director into the fix she portrays here. One evening, while recovering from a brain hemorrhage whose devastating effects are coolly depicted in the opening scene, Maud spots unrepentant criminal Vilko Piran (Kool Shen) on the evening news and, struck by his coarseness, demands that her assistant director arrange a meeting.
Maud wants Vilko to star in her next film, which Breillat aficionados will recognize as an adaptation of her novel “Bad Love.” Had it come to pass, the film would have depicted the strange, abusive relationship between a celebrity (to be played by Naomi Campbell) and her secret lover (con man Christophe Rocancourt, who sparked the offscreen trouble that follows here). Breillat’s casting instincts are perhaps the trickiest thing to embrace about her always provocative work, considering that whatever authenticity she gains by enlisting porn star Rocco Siffredi (in “Romance” and “Anatomy of Hell”) or the caveman-looking Kool Shen (whom she reportedly found in much the same way, Googling rappers until she found one suitable to play Valko) comes at the expense of a well-rounded dramatic performance.
To insist on employing a real-life criminal not only denies a professional actor’s ability to capture those same qualities onscreen, but invites the wolf in the door, so to speak. Though the system might view Breillat as victim, her film’s title, “Abuse of Weakness” (adapted from her autobiographical novel of the same name), has an almost ironic connotation here: On one hand, it references the legal charge she levied against Rocancourt after he scammed her out of nearly €1 million; on the other, it’s clear from the way Breillat reconstructs their curious relationship that she imagined herself as having the upper hand, despite her physical frailty, and there are many times throughout where Maud appears to be dominating Vilko.
It’s not clear until quite late in the film how desperately Maud craves the attention of her family, seen at her bedside immediately following the stroke, but otherwise too busy with their own affairs to check in with her after the fact. Every now and then, one of her kin pops in to express concern, scolding her for allowing Vilko to so clearly take advantage of her. When Maud needs company, however, the ex-con proves to be her most reliable companion — a perversely romantic notion, wonderfully captured in his awkward attempt to kiss her at one point, and offset throughout by the way he manipulates her checkbook, pocketing her “loans” like an ungrateful teenager who takes his allowance for granted.
True to the rest of her work, the psychology of the situation is too complex to reduce to easy explanations, and though many will mistake “Abuse of Weakness” as an act of either catharsis or revenge, it seems more accurate to interpret Breillat’s exercise as an attempt to understand the often-contradictory impulses that led to her predicament. Apart from early collaborator/mentor Maurice Pialat (for whom she wrote “Police”), few filmmakers have been so unforgivingly self-reflexive in their work, so willing to subvert cinematic elegance in service of ineffable realism. Although this film may represent a one-sided retelling of events, Breillat is hardest on herself, unafraid to suggest that perhaps she had it coming.
Collaborating with an actress as gifted as Huppert brings a necessary humanity to the often-frustrating character. Of all living actresses, only Huppert could capture nuances that alternately elicit sympathy and fierce sexual attraction to a recent stroke victim. At one point, Maud vows that if she ever recovers, “I’ll be an atomic bomb,” and Huppert proves the point. In the press notes, Breillat explains that she cut long scenes of physical therapy from the film, and though difficult-to-watch depictions of the initial stroke and subsequent epileptic attacks cement our allegiance with Maud, it is the character’s formidable strength — not her weakness — that comes through loud and clear.