Two extraordinary scenes bookend Catherine Breillat’s latest film, inspired by her experience of a stroke in 2004 and subsequent entanglement with con man Christophe Rocancourt. First, in a striking overhead shot, film director Maud Shoenberg (Isabelle Huppert) awakens in bed and with growing panic tries to feel the left side of her body. She attempts to stand but falls to the floor, facing away from the camera as if her very identity has collapsed. Then at the story’s conclusion, with muffled unease, she struggles to explain to her family why she wrote numerous checks for large sums of money to notorious con man Vilko (rapper Kool Shen). “I knew I had to stop, but didn’t care… It was me, but it wasn’t me.”
What happens between these events—a devastating stroke and the recognition that some version of herself has given away everything she possessed—is a thriller about the journey of a grown woman and fully fledged artist from innocence to experience. It begins with a period of numb determination in which Maud relearns how to walk and even laugh in pristine hospital and physiotherapy rooms over several months, though in a voiceover she recalls that it took her a year to understand that she had suffered a brain hemorrhage. “I’ve sunk like the Titanic. But if I ever resurface, I’ll be an atomic bomb,” Maud says at one point, her strong will intact. But how exactly will she know when she has resurfaced?
Rest is clearly a big part of Maud’s recovery, and she is dozing at home when Vilko enters her life as an apparition on a television screen. Waking to the sight of him being interviewed, she decides to cast him in a film, fascinated by what she calls his “icy, hangdog look” and “bitter pride.” Vilko materializes like a damaged, attention-hungry prince waking Sleeping Beauty, and he repeats the rude awakenings throughout their relationship, phoning while she is trying to rest, even eventually invading her home, where he crashes in a child’s bed.
When Maud isn’t sleeping, she is falling or struggling not to fall. The opening scene includes a shot of her body prostrate beneath a toppled gilded chair, hair flowing, an image so arresting it could be a period painting, or a still from Breillat’s The Last Mistress (07). Throughout Abuse of Weakness, some of the most potent scenes and images involve frightening tumbles. More than once she implores Vilko not to let go of her, though in doing so she is also succumbing to a voluptuous vertigo.
If sex is largely absent in Abuse of Weakness, power is not. Vilko plays on her pride as well as her vulnerability, reminding her of their similarities and grousing that she enjoys dominating men, a charge that elicits peals of childlike laughter. When he first visits her home, he jumps up on her bookcase while she watches in delight, as if her imagined film is already coming to life, though it is a book bearing her own image that he plucks from a shelf. Later, at the delirious height of their involvement, he notices a monograph of an artist’s sadomasochistic photographs, and she remarks on their beauty, oblivious to any implication it may hold in terms of her own situation.
It’s hard to imagine an actress other than Huppert so artfully layering frailty and toughness, self-delusion and self-awareness, and her complex portrayal is an irresistible foil to Kool Shen’s blank expressions and wounded swagger. Maud herself often seems to relish the absurd aspects of the story as it unfolds, such as Vilko’s hulking driver and ditzy, good-hearted wife—sometimes half-smiling as if, in fact, she were directing her own life.