Like its heroine, Abuse of Weakness wastes no time looking back, eschewing flashbacks of director Maud Schoenberg (Isabelle Huppert) ruling over a set or being courted by critics at Cannes. Instead, we meet Maud as she wakes up from a twitchy sleep to find herself half-paralyzed by a stroke. Director Catherine Breillat doesn’t linger long on her recovery either. We see enough of sterile, near-silent hospital rooms and painful therapy sessions to know it was a long slog, but we’re soon back home with Maud in her high-ceilinged Paris apartment, where the real story begins—and takes place, for the most part, since she can’t get around without help and she’s too proud to ask for much.
So the world comes to her, primarily in the form of Vilko Piran (Kool Shen), a charming brute she recruits to star in her next film. From his first visit, when he climbs casually onto a bookshelf to get a better look at what’s there, it’s clear that Vilko is as used as Maud is to being top dog, and that these two magnetic people are genuinely fascinated with each other, though it’s not entirely clear why. He soon becomes the leading man in Maud’s life, if not in her movie, pursuing her as if he were an ardent lover—though he kisses her only once, and then very awkwardly. He also gets her to write him more and more checks, apparently of her own free will, until she bankrupts herself.
With her customary genius for baring a character’s soul while guarding some private place at her core, Huppert plays Maud’s cards close to the vest. Does she find Vilko’s fake ardor amusing? Start to believe it and feel the same way? String him along so he’ll stay interested in her film—or maybe just in her? Appreciate the fact that he treats her like a force to be reckoned with, not a person with disabilities? The script leaves us guessing, while the actress signals all of those feelings and more, at one time or another, before settling into the imperious calm of her final scene. “It must have been me, because I did it,” she tells family members and lawyers after losing everything. “It was me, but it wasn’t me.”
Loosely based on its director’s own relationship with a con man after a severe stroke, Abuse of Weakness is shot full of the intensity, gender politics, and threat of violence that typify Breillat’s work, as well as the vividly textured costumes and settings that make even her fairy-tale worlds seem so tactile and lived-in. The paintings of lush, recumbent nudes throughout Maud’s apartment force us to focus on what Maud herself would rather forget: her own wrinkled skin and stroke-crippled left side (“half dead,” as she refers to it contemptuously) and the vulnerability of the flesh that all human beings are prey to—even rigorously un-self-pitying type-A’s like Maud. The olive skin, dark hair, and rounded curves of Vilko’s compliant young wife, Andy (Laurence Ursino), serve a similar function, throwing the ginger-haired Huppert’s ropy body, sharp tongue, and sharp angles into relief.
At the heart of the story is another of Breillat’s common themes: how much of human behavior, even our own, is a mystery to us. Maud may not know why she signed over all her money to Vilko, but she has learned at least one thing from her experience, as have we from the film. As Breillat put it in the Q&A after the film’s New York Film Festival press screening: “The abuse of weakness, there is something delicious…you are very happy when it is happening to you.”
The New York Film Festival runs from September 27—October 13.