Review – Abuse of Weakness (Dir. Catherine Breillat, 2014)
Catherine Breillat’s newest film, Abuse of Weakness (2014), is pleasantly bizarre, and you never quite know what’s going to happen next. However, if you’re familiar with Breillat’s repertoire, you suspect the worst. This is all especially fascinating given the narrative is based on Breillat’s true life experience. Truth truly is stranger than fiction.
The story is as follows: Filmmaker Maude (Isabelle Huppert) undergoes a stroke that effects the left half of her body. Afterwards, she sets out to resume her life.
Seeing a con artist, Vilko (French rapper Kool Shen), in an interview on television, she is drawn to his craggy face and “hang dog look,” a real-life quality that can’t be duplicated with an actor, Maude believes. She decides she wants him to star in her next film. Somehow her assistant complies with this left-field request and Vilko ends up standing in Maude’s living room. She describes the role, and he seems intrigued, both by the story and by her. Maude seems impervious to his oddities, being somewhat of an oddity herself. (Often, her now lopsided gait and coiled hand suit her placid demeanor, rather than detracting from it). Vilko agrees to star in the film, and over time they develop a strange relationship. Despite being fully aware of who he is, she lends him money. She continues to sign checks to him, until her bank account is depleted.
Vilko and Maude form a strange pair. He is aggressive and animalistic. Frequently shirtless, he expands to fill a space like a gorilla in a display of dominance. He shows no reverence for cultural norms, leaping, ape-like up Maude’s bookshelf to retrieve a book when they first meet. In contrast, Maude is slight in stature and diminutive, though fiery in her own right, and in many ways as irreverent as her companion. For starters, she knowingly takes up with a con man, seemingly just for the hell of it.
And though she is savvy and strong, she is also physically weakened. In the beginning, we see Maude struggling against her own body and mind, attempting in vain to draw a clock from memory, exercising her mouth so she might be able to laugh again. Though she comes out of it, mental faculties more or less in place, the mark of the stroke is clear. Her left hand curls inwards; her feet don’t quite operate the way they used to, requiring her to wear special boots. She embraces her new body and asks for help when she needs it. Still, in certain moments, her weakness is palpable. She grasps at her left hand as though surprised it’s part of her body. In one of the most difficult scenes, she collapses on the floor after a shopping trip, injuring her good hand.
In many respects, it seems obvious that the weakness being abused is Maude’s. Maybe she’s not as mentally unaffected as it first seems. Why else would she give Vilko the money? This is the central question of the movie, and as was the case in real life – there is no reason that’s immediately easy to grasp. At first Maude seems to be playing a game with Vilko, allowing him to believe he’s duping her. Does she have a master plan, we wonder, or is it all in good fun?
Still, as Maude sings the first check, she’s adamant that it’s a loan, not a gift. Yet he continues to ask, and she continues to provide. They develop a routine – he holds the checkbook in place to make the writing easier. What started off as a game has turned into something else. And still the film continues to surprise because it remains unclear if Maude is being used or if she’s waiting to turn the tables on Vilko.
So is their relationship, in fact, legitimate? I want to say that it is. Vilko, while he seems to demonstrate real affection for Maude, can’t repress his need to con – an addiction that suits his atavistic personality. And Maude, who starts by playing a game, can’t seem to stop playing even as she sees it’s no longer a game. At times, Maude and Vilko’s relationship becomes a transaction. She signs away her money, and he sticks around to take care of her. Underlying whatever she actually feels for Vilko is the reality that he provides assistance she needs.
When Vilko’s wife discovers his antics, he moves in with Maude. They sleep separated by a row of boxes. The boxes are filled with her belongings, as she remodels the house using assets she no longer possesses. It’s Breillat’s version of “the walls of Jericho” from Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. On either side of a pile of boxes are a con man and an eccentric stroke victim who no longer understand their feelings for one another. And when that wall comes tumbling down, where will Maude be then? When Maude crosses the boundary to his side, as Claudette Colbert does in Capra’s film, it’s not to profess her love, but to pick Vilko’s pockets. After a long time, Maude puts an end to their relationship, and sends Vilko packing. Her bank account is virtually empty and she’s deep in debt. The final shot of the film is a close up on Maude’s face, her eyes wide, bewildered. She can’t explain what happened to her or why.
This movie presents a puzzle that is never really unraveled. In doing so, it raises the question of we read as realistic on film. The motives here are deeply confusing and can’t be picked apart, partially because they are derived from real life. It’s hard enough to harness the entropy of life into a narrative, though this movie embraces that difficulty. How does one derive meaning from a singular event in a life, even as it’s still going on? So many films attempt to narrativize reality and fail because reality has no such structure until one is imposed.
There are many definitions of realism. Historically, there are aesthetic concerns as well, which I’ll leave aside for now. When we think of realism in commercial film, I think we are talking about a narrative world where things make sense in a way that we’ve been taught, over many years of filmgoing, to think is logical. Generally, it means causation: X occurs and Y is the result. In this case, you might say Maude’s stroke made her malleable to suggestion in a way that Vilko took advantage of. But that hardly seems like a satisfactory answer.
Perhaps there is more than one way weakness is being abused here. As humans, we are subjected to what life throws at us, and our bodies and minds are subjected to torment – from hemorrhages in the brain to addictions we can’t cure. Life itself is abuse, and we are all fundamentally weak. In reigning in her experiences on film, Breillat casts a lens on herself, but resists the urge to figure it all out. After all, she still has some time left for all the pieces to fall into place.