LFF #6 – Catherine Breillat’s Abuse Of Weakness

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Catherine Breillat directs Isabelle Huppert in this hyper-personal re-rendering of an episode in the French filmmaker’s life.

Abuse Of Weakness takes the confessional to it’s extreme. Utilising the cinematic medium (having already told the same tale in written form) Catherine Breillat seeks to uncover just how it came to be that she fell for a cynical conman, whilst recovering from a stroke. The film details these actions in typically unflinching detail. We open with a shot of Huppert writhing in agony, with Breillat’s unflinching eye forcing the viewer to make contact with the haemorrhaging body. It’s a bold way to open a picture, though it’s perhaps even moreso of Breillat to maintain that unhinged, tone throughout.

Fascinatingly Breillat manages to spin her own tale in to something which resembles the allegorical as closely as it does a biography. It’s perhaps no great surprise, given her recent output (the two films that immediately precede Abuse Of Weakness in Breillat’s oeuvre are adaptations of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty). While based on her novel, Breillat is clearly most comfortable venting her emotions through cinema. The ultra personal is carried across a hundred years of movie history, with the film’s closing stages, set in an empty, lonely old house recalling dual landmarks of French cinema; the Beast’s castle from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, and the starkly decorated palatial space of the final act of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfant Terribles (coincidentally on which Cocteau takes partial credit). Appropriately enough, were Abuse Of Weakness, like the films that precede it within Breillat’s body of work, sought influence from a fairytale then one would feel fairly confident about attributing said inspiration from La Belle et la Bête.

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Huppert is on fine form. She gives a lot over to the role, and admits to her portrayal of the veiled Breillat as to being a very personal challenge for her. Bearing the humanity and brazenness expected of latter-day performances from the actress, this is an able bedfellow to the likes of Claire Denis’ White Material and Michael Haneke’s Amour. Huppert is countered by rapper-come-actor Kool Shen, a figure cast as an outsider to the world of Maud/Breillat due to his position as an outsider to the world of the cinema. He’s an imposing force, his ambition as striking as it is antagonistic. He constantly appears to be simmering on the edge, yet never explodes. A byproduct of the tragic events that inspired the movie is a resulting work which stands at odds to (and acts as a nice commentary on) the archetypical feel good, prevailing-over-illness buddy comedy. Olivier Nakache’s Intouchables is a convenient target for critical comparison.

The film closes with Huppert/Breillat’s resisting the charges laid in front of her. As she repeatedly chants “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me” face long in to the lens all manner of emotions filter through. Feelings of mercy and pity, feelings of anger and brazen, feelings of shame and realisation. It’s a cathartic admittance of culpability, even if the protagonist (aka the director) may not precisely be aware of the acts they are said to have been responsible for.

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