Abuse of Weakness March 29, 2017
Despite possessing a sinewy, 5-foot-3 frame, Isabelle Huppert has rarely looked small on the screen. An actress who typically plays introspective heroines with a tendency to dominate a power dynamic, she’s so often imposing that we find ourselves in something of a state of shock when she’s playing someone distinctly vulnerable.
Catherine Breillat’s semi-autobiographical Abuse of Weakness (2013) provides Huppert with one of these relatively uncommon roles. In the film, she is neither a ruthlessly ambitious type nor a troubled woman with a cool exterior but rather a victim, a victim both of bodily fate and of another’s greed.
In Abuse of Weakness, she is essentially playing Breillat, the provocative French filmmaker who made and continues to make some of the most controversial films in cinema history, at her most psychologically and emotionally naked. In 2004, Breillat had a devastating cerebral hemorrhage that resulted in a massive stroke, leaving the left side of her body permanently paralyzed. In a few months, she was able to regain control of her voice and most of her body, returning to work in 2007 with the critically acclaimed The Last Mistress.
But the same year that proved Breillat could keep thriving as an artist despite her physical setback also welcomed in another horrific period. After inadvertently seeing recently released confidence artist Christophe Rocancourt on a talk show, she was inspired to make a film, tentatively entitled Bad Love, for him, along with supermodel Naomi Campbell, to star.
The idea was ambitious – albeit dangerous, considering Rocancourt’s reputation – but Breillat nonetheless let the man integrate himself into her life. Following a brief period during which the two familiarized themselves with one another and formed a seemingly close friendship, Rocancourt began taking advantage of her, ultimately getting away with nearly $1 million worth of Breillat’s money through misadvised loans.
Abuse of Weakness chronicles Breillat’s experiences with the grifter, who was eventually convicted for exploiting her during her weakened state. A few minor tweaks are made – the leading characters predictably have different names, the timeline between Breillat’s stroke and her meeting Rocancourt abbreviated – but the movie maintains an affecting brand of intimacy, making for a tour de force in courageous filmmaking. Huppert is stunningly physical, conclusively transforming herself into a woman who can hardly do so much as walk in a straight line, and Breillat paints her personal tragedy without pandering to sympathy. She invites our befuddlement as to how she let Rocancourt snake into her life with such ease, and she never romanticizes the way the man made her feel. We simply see a brute, played by a terrifying Kool Shen, take advantage of a disabled woman. And that’s that.
Breillat wrote a book detailing the story, Abus de faiblesse, which acts as the basis for the film. The novel remains unread by me, but I’m inclined to believe the account works better on the page than it does on the silver screen. Because Abuse of Weakness is so unforgiving and generally a feature that highlights cruelty noticeably unceremoniously, we’re not so much emotionally moved as we are taken aback. Since we struggle to see why Breillat took such a liking to Rocancourt – despite the fact that most excuses suggest that he was the first person to make her feel alive post-stroke, we never see anyone other than a monster. The film becomes 104 minutes worth of exploitation, never moving us to a gargantuan emotional reaction because Breillat’s style is, for the most part, aloof.
Still, the writer/director’s willingness to make such a remarkably personal film is something to admire. Abuse of Weakness, in lieu of its inability to drastically move, is masterfully made and intensely private: we feel as though we’re watching Breillat experience hell once again, and that bravery is astonishing. I just wish it indulged itself more during instances of catharsis: an emotional film of Abuse of Weakness’s sort should wash over us with the power of a torrent. B