Abuse of Weakness
Director: Catherine Breillat
Synopsis: A director (Isabelle Huppert) begins work on her comeback film after recovering from a severe stroke, and casts an infamous ex-conman who sees her as a mark.
Overview: To call Abuse of Weakness a film about power dynamics seems a painfully obvious observation, but it’s too accurate not to be made. In adapting events from her real life, writer and director Catherine Breillat uses the act of filmmaking as a way of asserting control over her past. She claims authorship over history, and in doing so changes it. In real life, she was taken advantage of by a conman who swindled hundreds of thousands of euros from her, and who was put in prison for it just a year before this film was released. But by making a film about it — even without changing the narrative to a more favorable outcome for her — Breillat takes control of her relationship with the criminal. By making a film about her own weakness, she becomes retroactively stronger.
Breillat conveys this power imbalance with a canny visual tic. There are a lot of almost traditionally formalist compositions in Abuse of Weakness, but each one is set askew. Perfectly level objects (a table, say) will take up the horizontal width of the frame and also be tilted away from the camera. Breillat plays with depth to create a slight but palpable unease, and simultaneously crafts a neat visual metaphor for the film’s primary theme. For other directors, this might have come across as too-clever-by-half, but Breillat’s touch is light enough to pull it off. Her camera movements are subtle but deliberate, and when the camera isn’t moving, subjects flit in and out of the frame with the same grace. It makes for an at-times strange viewing experience, but Breillat’s skill is unquestionable.
Any review of this film would be remiss if it did not mention Isabelle Huppert’s performance in the lead role. The film asks a lot of her, particularly in the early scenes where she must depict the effects of a stroke. Any role which requires exaggerated physicality to portray a disability is going to have an actor walking on eggshells, but Huppert pulls it off to an astonishing degree. Part of this must be credited to Breillat’s direction, of course — she shoots Huppert with empathy rather than pity. Huppert is unrestrained yet never over-the-top, treading a fine line with exact precision.
During the bulk of the movie, her stroke symptoms have receded, but her performance maintains that finely-tuned brilliance. In one standout scene, she describes to the conman Vilko Piran (Kool Shen) her vision of the film she wants to make with him. She recites a very broad series of plot beats, but Huppert plays it as though she’s channeling a message from a higher power. “Taking dictation from God,” as Salieri put it. It’s not just a great performance, it’s a breathtaking display of synergy between actress and filmmaker. Abuse of Weakness got almost no attention when it was released just last year, but now it’s waiting to be discovered. It’s hardly something to watch on a whim, but cinephiles will find a lot in it to love.