Abuse of Weakness

07/21/2014

France / 2013 / French

Directed by Catherine Breillat

With Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Christophe Sermet

Still from 'Abuse of Weakness'There is a scene early in The Abuse of Weakness when Maude, a middle-aged film director recently felled by a brain hemorrhage, is asked by one of her doctors to draw a picture of a clock face. The left side of her own face droops, that entire side of her body having “died”, as she puts it. She draws half of a circle, and fills in the numbers, 1 through 6. But then she’s unable to finish the drawing; the left side of it remains blank. The metaphor of the half-clock persists throughout the film, branding its incomplete figure upon Maude’s life following her stroke.

Maude’s tribulations, beginning from the horrific moment when she wakes up and realizes she must call herself an ambulance, are charted relatively quickly. She goes from being unable to speak or move, to struggling through physical therapy, to eventually being discharged from the hospital and being independent again. But she is now handicapped; she must fight to maintain equilibrium with one side considerably weakened, her left foot curled into a useless ball and her left hand locked in a hideous clutching action.

In-keeping with her physical affliction, her mind seems unable to follow through on cause-and-effect. She maintains a darkly aristocratic air of cynicism that she no doubt had before her stroke (although the stroke happens in the first scene, so we don’t really know that). On television, late one night, she sees a talk show with a peculiar guest, a con artist named Vilko Piran who claims to have made millions in a career based on fooling people. She calls up her assistant and says that she simply has to meet this man.

Ostensibly drawn by his “icy, hangdog look”, Maude decides she wants to cast him in her next film. The brute, dressed in a drooping, brown hoodie, stalks about her apartment appraisingly. Yes, he says, he’d like to buy the place. When she offers it for a million, he sniffs, “peanuts – you’re being had.” He climbs up her bookshelf and picks out a book with her face on the cover. She describes the plot of her next film to him, a tragedy from beginning to end. His thick neck swivels, and he nods his cubic head: yes, he could grace it with his star presence, since “it has a good ending.” Her sitting room could be two rooms: she sits on one couch – white, neat, minimal modernism – and he sits on the other, a stuffy old leather backed by exposed brick and ancient radiator. Maude’s years of accruing and cultivating now look as absurd to us as they do to him, if only because of the contrast they elicit.

It soon becomes evident that she wants to force a sort of parasitic friendship with him. It’s no mystery what he’s doing (he will accept money from anyone), but she doesn’t seem to be able to abstractly draw out the real world implications of that. It’s plain that she has lots of money, and quite a bit of it gets flushed into her home, her children, her estate. But there she is, alone each night, in need of someone to phone.

Still from 'Abuse of Weakness'Vilko has a nice apartment, a wife with a tattoo of his name on her, a baby daughter, a personal bodyguard; tiresome bad-boy allure, the limitations of bling. Having grown up destitute, he sees fleecing others as his due – he doesn’t take from them, he accepts what their vanity is willing to divest. He tosses money around obscenely, with a dull swagger that is more like the rapper playing him than someone who’s served a decade in prison. Compulsively though, he starts to ask Maude for loans, first to save him from bankruptcy, then to buy a buddy’s failing restaurant, etc. The requests get larger and more absurd.

Perhaps director Breillat is comparing the vanity and cynicism of the con man with that of the film director, suggesting that their respective centers aren’t any different, only the actions that they’re spurred towards, and their means of achieving stability. Maude protects her sense of herself by calling him cretin, boor, braggart. But without realizing it, the identity she had built up, harbored and carried over after her stroke, has begun to flutter away like so much money. Partly she signs the checks because they aren’t real to her, and partly, as she tells her family later, “it didn’t matter.” To Vilko it did – to him, every con counts.

While she hides behind an affected fascination for him as a character, her real attraction is to the perversity of the aspirational geometry that would cross their paths. Her friends warn her he’s dangerous, but she needs to hear his voice on the phone in the morning. She finds his weary businessman gait comical, relishing his clumsy, brazen insinuation and affected charm. He becomes a sort of close attendant to her. The tenderness and roughness that marks their relationship takes on twists and turns, many of them subtle and devastating. Beyond her ability to manipulate it in order to bring him to her, it is her vulnerability that she knows is the reason he will stay. So she develops an almost vicarious delight in her new, excessive weakness  – one that she hasn’t known before – as though she were viewing it from an out-of-body perspective.

Still from 'Abuse of Weakness'When she is on her own, Maude is constantly climbing a perilous ladder towards independence. There are a few terrifying falls, some of which threaten to make nonsense of her progress. The loud, lumpen sound of her body crashing, as though in several pieces, to the floor, is harrowing and seemingly endless. Although she has other means of support in her life besides her new and unpredictable friend: a daughter, an incontinent mother, a fawning assistant and a claque of producers, collaborators, and clothes designers. All are accustomed to being controlled, to some degree. None of them seems to plunge at her heart like Vilko. Like a petulant, bone-headed son he keeps her on tender hooks. Taking him on is an acknowledgement of the enormity of the vacuum beneath her facade, a nod to the void.

A film director doesn’t seem like the likely target of a con-man who is used to scamming wealthy people. But in fact this film contains an enormous degree of autobiography. Breillat herself suffered from a stroke in 2004, and was shortly thereafter befriended by a con-man who fleeced her of thousands of euros. The title of the film misleads, but points to a wider dimension of control and torment. It isn’t merely weakness that is preyed upon (although that remains a central theme), but also the existing desire for control, of reigning in and debilitating others, of possessing and destroying. And, in the mutually wheedling relationship that flowers between con and mark, the title speaks of the masochism hidden in isolated wealth, of how Maude abuses her own weaknesses.

Maude calls Vilko “a wild animal”, forgetting that he is really just a cold, dangerous human. In addition to depicting her own emotional state and physical deterioration at the time, Breillat is taking to task some of her own preoccupations and attitudes. Maude’s interest in Vilko (as the “star” of her next film) sends up directors’ fixations with figures whose outsider cache – here paired with prior notoriety – leads them to take in people whose real-world implications and baggage throw a carefully-laid environment of artistic detachment hopelessly out of balance. While Fassbinder’s Salem or Herzog’s Bruno S. (or Kinski, for that matter) were muses too unwieldy to possess, for a controlling director, their thrall supersedes regular actors. But in those instances, who was using whom? It matters little, since they both need one another, to exist and to continue. The development and evolution of that need is largely forms the film. In a sense this strange pair has become part of one dysfunctional whole, and we are not seeing coercion so much as collusion, an aiding and abetting of two types of co-dependence.

When she goes to purchase black leather boots, she comments that “the handicapped need an S & M look.” The banal fixation on domination and restraint is treated dismissively, but also drawn upon heavily, feeding a sense of irony into Maude’s situation, further complicating the physical ordeal through which we are following her. Breillat doesn’t seem to be so much drawing a line of distinction between herself and the character, as holding a reflective light, through her art, to a complicated experience. Thus, nothing is seen softly; it is all trenchant, inevitable, and true.

Still from 'Abuse of Weakness'The very precise climate of self-deception surrounds her, the one necessary for a man like Vilko to insinuate himself. She reassures those around her that he only steals from poor people. Her assets are limited (and piece-meal, dependent on how frequently she makes a movie), and thus she is no different from these people he has scammed in the past. Indeed, she seems such a readymade target that the scamming just surfaces as another facet of her environment, her growing relationship with the man, but never materializes as a revelation. Yes, things unravel, like when the bank knocks on her front gate with a court order for $800,000 euros. Her friendship with Vilko continues, even with its obvious unsustainability, its blatant mismatch and heartbreak.

Mostly it is her personality that has been undermined. Towards the end, she starts grasping anything she can; she starts to steal from him, paltry sums that don’t approach what she’s already lost. She appears like a hoarder in her new house, surrounded by boxes, with Vilko sleeping on a mattress in the next room, everything gone besides the sinking feeling that she’s lost all control. Her possessions are sitting there but, like her films and books, no longer belong to her. They’ve all been plundered by other people. Her mind sinks deeper than the thug in her house; she calls money “cabbage” and keeps a check that he’s written for her as though it were a precious ticket off of the merry-go-round.

Isabelle Huppert embodies, simultaneously, two corporeal extremes of total fragility and marblesque indestructibility. In any role in which she appears (a double-tier of sacrificial method acting and always being herself), her very body seems at stake, her blue and diaphanous skin at the verge of rupturing; her drowsy python’s eyes about to crack like robin’s eggs. Here there is a new type of physicality, one that consumes the character and the actress all at once. There becomes no separation from her struggle to rebound and the degradation of her personality.

The ending, which verbally tries to sum up the character’s downfall – but does so in a way that knowingly comes up far short of articulation – seems more like a simpering plea from Breillat herself, than a thoughtful explanation. But why? Why try to defend any of her decisions, when the fusion of actress and director have communicated all that we need to know? What would be more powerful and interesting is if we would begin to understand what does matter to her, and to Vilko. It isn’t money, and it isn’t loyalty, or accomplishments (they’re nothing; they’re abstract) that matter, but an insensible loneliness at the core of both of their beings, an irrational and debilitating need to make contact with the dead extremities of the world that they inhabit.

As nearly everything is laid bare from the beginning, we are not seeing the anatomy of deception. Maude is not a fruiting apple tree, ready to be shaken for all she’s worth; rather, she is a thicket of insecurities, forever fraying at the edges. Yes, this is an odyssey of handicap, of weakness. But that isn’t where the exploitation occurs between the characters. They are gentle, at times tender and supportive of one another. Deep down, everyone is as weak as Maude when she awakens in her billowing clouds of blankets. We all need to hang onto someone so that they can make us feel real – to complete the circle, so to speak.

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