Catherine Breillat is a master at depicting women in peril, while at the same time imputing to them questionable character traits. Like the married seductress of a teenage boy in Brief Crossing, or a precociously wise Marie-Catherine in Bluebeard, her latest anti-heroine, Maud, in Abuse of Weakness, played by a superbly icy Isabelle Huppert, is a woman who walks the line between manipulation and victimhood. And since Maud is also a filmmaker, Breillat raises questions not only of personal nature, but of control and dominance in the artistic process.
Maud suffers uncontrollable movements in one hand and has difficulty walking and carrying out basic chores after a brain hemorrhage. Her fierce survivalist ethos is underscored by the opening shot of Maud’s body convulsed, followed by paralysis and excruciating therapy, which the diminutive Huppert plays with eviscerating attention to detail, turning her body into a human wreckage. Huppert is no stranger to inhabiting physical and emotional brutality, as evident in such films as Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Joachim Lafosse’s Private Property, and in her solo performance in Sarah Kane’s devastating play Psychosis. In Abuse of Weakness, the camera mercilessly pries on each physical defect: the hand that needs to be steadied with another, the lips that twitch and twist into a scowl. After the opening sequence, Breillat cuts to Maud improved, seemingly adjusted to her condition, and in control: Watching a late-night talk-show, she spots a con artist, Vilko Piran (Kool Shen), whose book has made him a minor celebrity, and decides to cast him as the lead in her next movie.
Vilko visits Maud at home, and thus starts an odd, worrisome, yet bizarrely picaresque relationship between the defrauder and his willing victim. Vilko craves wealth, as his rapacious assessment of Maud’s elegant apartment and cozy lifestyle makes clear. He plays on Maud’s vulnerability, her confidence threatened and then willfully reshaped as she purchases dominatrix-looking black boots to conceal her disfigured foot. Vilko calls Maud at all hours, like a spoiled child in need of constant attention. Maud is amused at first, and comfortable enough to dictate their meetings, though her physical frailty finds her increasingly reliant on Vilko. A dubious family man with a wife with expensive tastes, he soon intimates that he’s in financial distress, and that his life is threatened. Maud then writes him generous checks with an alarming frequency, a habit that, combined with her hefty expenditures on renovating her house, can only lead to financial ruin. As Vilko becomes peskier in his demands, Maud turns aggressive, so that their roles slip from con artist and victim to master and slave. Maud is left having to explain her squandering to her family, defiant that she will not give up her house, her downgraded status unfathomable.
The fact that the illness and the swindle portrayed are rooted in Breillat’s personal experiences have little bearing on the film’s coherence. Brought up before the grim tribunal of bewildered family members, Maud can only say, “It was me, but it wasn’t me,” which catches her sense of wonder, but defies understanding. Did Maud act under the influence of medications? The clinical explanation is called into question by Maud’s delight in treating Vilko as a real-life experiment. Used to being in charge, Maud appears genuinely flustered by her main lead’s escaping from under her wings; yet she knew him to be a scoundrel, and it’s this sense of playing with fire, of living out her whim without being able to control it, that prompts her.
Enmeshed with Maud, we’re left in the dark as to her motivations. This does nicely for stressing how opaque the subconscious can be, but isn’t always satisfying, as the film teeters between uneasy naturalism and the grotesque. Yet Breillat’s scripting of Maud as fatally distant from her family, willfully independent, but more believably abandoned, is haunting, and Vilko’s flamboyant, flashy presence, the void it appears to fill in Maud’s life, hints at a more mundane distress. In imbuing Maud with scorching pride, an appetite for risqué adventure and a need to test the boundaries between life and fantasy, Huppert delivers a stunning performance, though her charged charisma is such that we’re at times precluded from grasping Maud’s more prosaic emotional hang-ups, left to coolly marvel at her, as if she weren’t our kin but some rare and marvelous species.