Isabelle Huppert's acting is one of the great enigmas of cinema. You would never exactly think of her as a chameleon and yet, watching her on screen, you never really perceive her as “Isabelle Huppert” either. She seems capable of taking on any part she fancies, yet she almost never noticeably does anything to transform herself; she's not one for putting on a voice, adopting mannerisms, or otherwise doing what is still widely known as 'doing a Meryl Streep' (grossly unfair as that simplification is to Ms. Streep herself).

It's almost as if Huppert's distinctive talent is not to transform herself, but to dissolve—attuning herself so entirely and subtly to the rhythms of a character that she entirely becomes that character without our even noticing that any metamorphosis has taken place. It's what makes it so difficult to stereotype Huppert as any particular type of actor, or as herself embodying any particular type of persona in the real world.

This means that Huppert can play radically different characters in succession without them either defining her, or leaking into each other. Take some of her recent parts: the colonial survivor, tenacious in the face of social breakdown in Claire Denis's White Material (09); a flamboyant fantasist in Marc Fitoussi's frothy comedy Copacabana (10); the uncomprehending, vulnerable daughter of elderly parents in Michael Haneke's Amour (12); a comically lascivious Mother Superior in Guillaume Nicloux's Diderot adaptation The Nun (13); a bored married woman pondering an affair in a softer comedy, the recent French release Paris Follies (Fitoussi again,14). Add these up and you have a range that, in its extreme contrasts, simply wouldn't make sense for any other contemporary French actress (although I might take a bet on Emmanuelle Devos pulling it off). Capping the mystery of Huppert is the fact that she's able to do this with no or little “furniture” to bolster the characters—at most, a whimsical fur hat in Paris Follies, or perhaps a slightly different smile, or the corners of her mouth drawn in a slightly new tautness, but that's it.

However, Huppert pulls off a differently miraculous performance in Abuse of Weakness. This is one of those roles that strike you from the start as intensely daunting—until you realize that Huppert makes you aware of the difficulty by seeming to take it so totally in her stride. It's a difficult role not only because she plays a character suddenly affected by a physical disability, but also because that character appears to be more or less a direct representation of the film's writer and director, Catherine Breillat.

Abuse of Weakness deals with the real-life experience already detailed by Breillat in her book of the same name—the director's encounter with one Christophe Rocancourt, a confidence trickster who scammed her out of some 700,000 euros, after she planned to cast him in one of her features. Breillat's film begins with Huppert, as the director's alter ego Maud Shainberg, alone in bed as she suddenly experiences a massive brain hemorrhage—as Breillat herself did in 2004. Maud finds her body twisted out of its usual shape, unable to control her movements or facial expressions. Seeing her wracked with frustration during a physiotherapy session, we realize that this is a woman who is used to exerting control not just over herself, but over the world—and now she's losing it. As Maud passes down a hospital corridor, the figure seen walking with a stick in the background—shakily reattaining a degree of physical ease that as yet evades Maud—is none other than Catherine Breillat. The director is at once putting her Hitchcockian authorial mark on the film, and reminding us that Maud both is and is not to be read as Catherine Breillat—make of that contradiction what we will.

In hospital, Maud tells her producer, “I've sunk like the Titanic. If I ever resurface, I'll be an atomic bomb”—a statement at once rueful and defiant. She does indeed become that bomb—though it has no casualty but herself. Returning home, Maud happens to see a TV interview with one Vilko Piran (played by French ex-rapper Kool Shen), a confidence trickster imprisoned after scamming 35 million euros from various sources. He is now promoting his self-justifying memoir, in which he lays his crimes squarely at the door of a world in which “most people have lost their humanity.” Maud fairly wriggles with delight, bowled over by Vilko's “icy hangdog look . . . his bitter pride . . . No repentance, I love it!” She decides to make Vilko her next male lead, and imperiously commands that he be brought to her, like a child demanding a new toy—”Je le veux!” (“I want him!”)

Vilko visits Maud in her elegantly furnished house, and promptly starts strutting to impress her. He climbs up on her bookcase, inspecting her library; he's a Nietzsche fan, he tells her, but adds: “I don't buy books, I steal them.” His perpetual bad-boy posturing is patently corny, as if daring Maud to slap him down. At one point, he turns up at her place with 200,000 euros in cash, stuffed into a bag from Paris store Tati—a brand synonymous with proletarian thrift—and claims it's the loot in some sinister corridors-of-power deal. “It's from the Minister of the Interior,” he insists, then sulks: “You don't believe me? Nothing surprises you.” His whole routine could be summed up as “Mommy, you're not looking.”

Maud is hardly taken in, but relishes the imposture anyway. The pair are made for each other, given that Maud is also on a mission to impress; after her stroke, that's understandable. Shopping for new boots after the hospital, she announces that she has designed her own, and brooks no argument from either her assistant or the shoemaker: she wants the look as S&M as possible, with chains and buckles to make it “un peu rock 'n' roll.” And she works herself up into a delirium as she pitches Vilko the tale of Last Tango–like amour fou in which she intends to cast him: closing her eyes, waving her hands, she revels in her own persuasive power as a storyteller. Maud's film, needless to say, never happens; instead, she invests her time and energy in turning her own life into a melodrama with Vilko as her co-star.

It's Vilko who insists on Maud spending time with him; before long, he's complaining that she has made him dependent, that he's become “permanently anguished”—which fills her with proprietorial delight. Helping Maud into her car, Vilko complains, “Your big trip is turning men into slaves”—fair enough, as he has become another of those spellbound, feminized men that populate Breillat films, like the dashing but androgynous Ryno in The Last Mistress (07), or Rocco Siffredi's softly philosophical stud in Anatomy of Hell (04).

That the pair's relationship is not overtly sexual makes it all the more perplexing. When Vilko lunges at Maud for a kiss, she recoils in horror—or coquettish pretend shock. When she punches him in annoyance at one point, he taunts her, “Firm young flesh feels good, eh?”—although that's not what she's interested in (besides, Kool Shen is 47, and easily looks it). The pair's rapport is more like a chaste, mutually teasing mock romance: “Tell me I'm your last love,” Vilko urges. Inevitably, heartbreak ensues. One day, Maud gets a phone call from Vilko; we don't hear what he says, but it reduces her to tears, and we know she's experiencing the agonies of the damned.

Abuse of Weakness

The relationship's most mysterious element is that Maud keeps handing over money to Vilko, whenever he demands it. Her first check to him is a loan, she reminds him; but the checks keep coming, helping Vilko live in splendor with his vampish young wife (Laurence Ursino), who eventually disappears from the scene, perhaps because there isn't room for her and Maud in Vilko's life. The more checks Maud signs, the more she and Vilko become imprisoned in their complicity. Because she's having increasingly unaffordable work done on her house, her physical world shrinks (a parallel with her damaged body). Her bedroom becomes a storeroom, then Vilko, newly homeless, moves in: they end up sharing bunk space, farcically—him with his sleeping bag crammed into a tiny cot, her bundled up just as awkwardly in her own bed.

If the narrative becomes repetitive, that serves to make the flow of time all the more uncertain, as it can be in tales of love or madness. Money flows out mysteriously, just as mysteriously returns, then disappears again as if it was never there in the first place. A close-up shows Vilko placing a 90,000-euro check on Maud's bedside table; in the morning it's gone, as if money were prone to evaporate in air.

In the end, Maud's family gather round to help out—and to try and understand exactly what's been happening with her. Her daughter asks what was so special about Vilko, and Maud simply answers: “He was there.” Breillat ends on a devastatingly opaque close-up of Huppert's Maud, quietly tearing up as she tries to explain her motivations. But we are left with no explanation at all, just a mesmerizing riddle: “It was me, but it wasn't me. But it wasn't anyone else. So it was me. But it wasn't me.”

Only a performer truly confident with opacity—that is, who can convey enigma without appearing to flirt with us—could carry off a moment like this. But this note comes at the end of a film in which Huppert does precisely what I claimed, earlier on, that she didn't ever do: transform herself physically. In fact, in Abuse of Weakness she does just that, enacting Maud's physical agonies to upsetting effect: early on, trying to force open the fingers of what has become a fist, or later, collapsing in spasms while the camera hovers above her, detached, as if refusing to help (a perfect cinematic expression of the film's autobiographical fiction as out-of-body experience).

Abuse of Weakness

There's something about the contrast between these agonizing physical moments and Huppert/Maud's odd insouciance elsewhere in the film that make this performance seem like a very effective shorthand, rather than the totally invested physical recreation of disability achieved by, say, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot or Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And, having met Catherine Breillat more than once since her stroke, I have to say that Huppert seems somehow to have perfectly internalized her personality and her physical manner—even though it's clear that she's in no way impersonating her in the usual sense.

Shot with clean, spare simplicity by the Dardennes' regular DP Alain Marcoen, this is a very simple work, almost prosaically so at times—as if Breillat wanted to purge the film of anything that wasn't strictly to the point. An example of its sparseness is the occasional touch of score—the odd stark, melancholy scrape of solo violin by Didier Lockwood.

As for the title, “abuse of weakness” is a French legal term, suggesting that Rocancourt (or Vilko) has taken advantage of Breillat (or Maud) when she was vulnerable. Given the strength of will that the film attributes to Maud (and which we're used to associating with the famously tough Breillat), you also wonder just who has exploited whom—and whether Kool Shen quite knew what he was getting himself into when he consented to appear as the hapless Vilko. He's very good, though, and oddly comic, perhaps despite himself—his Vilko a sort of malign but ineffectual imp, as though Maud has summoned him out of her obscure desire. Why him? He was there.