Catherine Breillat’s best films (Anatomy of Hell, Fat Girl, Romance) are lusty, consumptive bodies of work that fearlessly exploit the cerebral along with the physical. They turn the sickness of desire into well-aimed art. They are non-rational films in which the farcical and outrageous horrors of Life are made visible as Desire. They are obscene: that which should be hidden away but forces its way through the membrane. They break feminism’s affirmative and humanist contract by pouring out impolite and uncanny energies. They annihilate. Anatomy of Hell is probably the most successful in its exaggerated artifice of what it’s like to be a body, the spectacle of its mechanism, the grotesque costumage of femininity. Catherine Breillat is a force.
Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse) is a French legal term describing what actually happened to Breillat after she suffered a stroke in 2004 and befriended the notorious con man, Christophe Roconcourt. Their relationship was based on Breillat’s desire to cast Roconcourt in her next film, but this arrangement fell apart when he swindled her out of large sums of money. The film, and Roconcourt’s eventual prison sentence, are a result of Breillat’s experience. Abuse of Weakness opens with a shot of a body in bed, under clean white sheets, still, unmoving. The body begins to shift as the camera moves up to a face, a woman’s face, awakening in the middle of the night. Something is wrong. She begins to slap at her right arm. The woman sits up, naked, tries to stand, and falls to the floor. A painting depicting a naked woman spread languorously in front of a bed hangs on the wall above where the paralyzed woman has fallen. The painting is a fantasy of health and sexuality projecting all death and disease as outside the painting, a deathless pastoral that hangs above our fallen woman. She crawls her way to the phone. “Half of my body is dead,” she tells the operator.
Our woman is Maude (Isabelle Huppert), a filmmaker whose life is stripped and restrained after suffering a stroke. The film’s early scenes of Maude’s rehabilitation and hospitalization are bleak in their portrayal of the body as punishment, a “sentence,” something continually pronounced. Her mouth is confined to a downward slant, and her hand, an arthritic shaking fist that is at times uncontrollable. She is able to draw only half of a clock, forgetting what number comes after five. She tells the nurse, in tears, that she wants to laugh again, and the nurse takes out a hand mirror so Maude can watch her mouth make movements that will someday allow a laugh to happen. What she once was — a moving picture, a thing engaged with the world, a pixel, smart and bouncy — is now a simple biological category, a nonnegotiable sameness confined to need, a human made even more human by lack.
But Maude survives herself into something new, a slow show-stopper. She walks again; she learns how to carry groceries; she designs her own handicapped boots to satisfy her style: “The handicapped should have a BDSM look.” She comes back “an atomic bomb” and, most importantly, she starts working on a new film. She finds her leading man on television one night as she’s falling asleep. “Vilko” (Kool Shen) is a notorious thief, a man of “bitter pride” who makes his money stealing from the rich and the poor. He agrees to be in Maude’s film after hearing the description of the plot: a starlet falls for a man who is neither famous nor rich, and who begins to resent the starlet’s fame as a source of power he has no access to, culminating in a final scene wherein the man bashes the woman’s head against the wall. The woman spreads her bloody self out for his sexual pleasure. As we watch Huppert close her eyes and describe that final scene in its violent sincerity, we understand how Breillat’s films are so unnerving in their ability to present a single scene capable of transcending an entire film. Think of the ending in Fat Girl, or the tampon drinking scene in Anatomy of Hell; those scenes hit us as if we were looking the other way, shifting gears into new territory. They seek to continue the world of the film rather than explain it, allowing us to remember them in a way we don’t remember much of anything anymore. Maude’s imagined ending to a film that never gets made would have been an unrelenting horrorshow only someone like Breillat could make.
Despite the framework for a scene as haunting as the ending to Maude’s film, Abuse of Weakness doesn’t follow through with such terror. It’s unfortunate that the film based so literally on Breillat’s life is perhaps her least ambitious and most forgettable film. As we watch Maude write checks for Vilko, each time increasing the amount, and each time passively reminding him to pay her back, we’re sort of left waiting to feel the dread we’re supposed to feel, as this reversal of currents of power is carried out in a less robust version of what it is supposed to model. Maude sits down to write a check, smiles a feeble smile at Vilko, and asks him to hold and tear the paper for her. Repeat scene. Instead of gnawing sickness, a stagnation is felt as the film isn’t propelling itself toward anything other than Maude getting screwed over. With someone like Breillat, we’re ready to be kicked in the face, to feel differently about the world after having experienced whatever she’s showing us. But the film never transcends that opening sequence of Maude falling to the floor, true terror in her eyes, setting us up for something that could go anywhere beyond but doesn’t. Instead, a rather vague emotional pull towards the mundane is presented through sequences of Maude writing checks, arguing with Vilko, sleeping for what seems like the majority of the film, and never baring her teeth. It’s a sedative in Breillat’s filmography of flame throwers. Yet it doesn’t feel like a failure so much as a purging that Breillat felt compelled to make, as if she could only do that after such trauma. A necessary self-reportage. We’ll wait for whatever comes next to go twice as far as anything she’s ever done. A gift for the steadfast.