×

Toronto Film Review: ‘Abuse of Weakness’

Employing a real-life con man invites the wolf in the door, so to speak, in Catherine Breillat's uneasy-making autobiographical drama.

With:

Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino, Christophe Sermet, Ronald Leclercq. (French dialogue)

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.

Popular on Variety

Toronto Film Review: 'Abuse of Weakness'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Masters), Sept. 5, 2013. (Also in New York Film Festival.) Running time: 104 MIN. Original title: "Abus de faiblesse"

Production:

(France-Belgium-Germany) A Flach Film, Iris Films production. (International sales: Rezo Film Sales, Paris.) Produced by Jean-Francois Lepetit. Co-producer, Nicolas Steil.

Crew:

Directed, written by Catherine Breillat. Camera (color), Alain Marcoen; editor, Pascal Chavance; music, Didier Lockwood; production designer, Pierre-Francois Limbosch; sound, Dominique Warnier.

With:

Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino, Christophe Sermet, Ronald Leclercq. (French dialogue)

More Film

  • Rita And Tom Hanks Coronavirus

    Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson Return to U.S. After Coronavirus Diagnosis in Australia

    Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are back home in the U.S. after they revealed they had contracted coronavirus and were quarantined in Australia. Hanks gave an update on Twitter Saturday morning, thanking everyone who had helped them in Australia and assuring people that they are still isolating themselves in the U.S. “Hey, folks…We’re home now [...]

  • Film Comment Magazine Goes on Hiatus

    Film Comment Magazine to Go on Hiatus as Film at Lincoln Center Lays Off Half of Staff

    Many companies are being financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Film at Lincoln Center is the latest organization to have to lay off employees and pause some of their operations. On Friday, executive director Lesli Klainberg released a memo announcing that the center had to furlough or lay off about half of its [...]

  • "Birds of Prey" egg sandwich

    'Birds of Prey' Actor Bruno Oliver Recreates Harley Quinn's Famous Sandwich

    When actor Bruno Oliver booked the role of short order cook Sal in “Birds of Prey: (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” he had no idea how significant Sal and his breakfast sandwich were to the story. “You couldn’t tell from the audition necessarily and as actors, we always worry about our scenes [...]

  • Minyan

    'Minyan': Film Review

    Best known for the unexpectedly soul-shattering San Francisco suicide doc “The Bridge,” indie filmmaker Eric Steel came out and came of age in 1980s New York at a moment just before AIDS devastated the city’s gay community. Such timing must have been surreal, to assume something so liberating about one’s own identity, only to watch [...]

  • Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches

    Film New Roundup: Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches North American Distribution

    In today’s film news roundup, “The Queen’s Corgi” finds a home, the Overlook Film Festival is postponed and the California Film Commission adjusts its tax credit rules due to the coronavirus. ACQUISITION Freestyle Digital Media has acquired North American rights to the animated family comedy feature “The Queen’s Corgi,” and plans to make it available on DVD and to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content