Interview: Catherine Breillat
In 2004 Catherine Breillat suffered a debilitating stroke and three years later, while slowly recovering, she began a relationship with Christophe Rocancourt, the already infamous “swindler of the stars,” who took advantage of her diminished capacity to scam her out of a fortune and ultimately her sense of self. Abuse of Weakness, her almost sensationally restrained (if typically fraught) latest feature, follows Maud Shainberg (Isabelle Huppert), a filmmaker who, recovering from a stroke, decides to cast a con man who has written a book about his crimes, the roguish Vilko (Kool Shen), in her next feature. Maud is captivated by Vilko’s “bitter pride,” his grim, striking face and confident mannerisms that seem to come straight from one of her scripts.
Abuse of Weakness has a steady undercurrent of tension throughout, and Huppert’s emotionally clamped down performance combined with the alternately placid and disturbing textures of Maud’s life give it the feel of a waking dream, with hints of the Gothic. FILM COMMENT spoke with Breillat about the film recently in a spirited and lengthy Skype session.
One of the first things I want to ask you about is the scene when Maud says, while being fitted for orthopedic shoes, “The handicapped need an S&M look.”
When I was in the hospital, I asked my producer Jean-Francois [Lepetit], who plays the producer in the film, to give me Crash, the Cronenberg. Because when your body is not beautiful, you need that look. It’s the only one that will allow you to be elegant. And me, I love elegance. I was like a dandy and then I didn’t have a choice for what I could wear. The orthopedic shoes are normally very, very ugly—they’re for older women, and with my personal design they became beautiful. Everybody said they couldn’t tell the shoes were orthopedic.
When Maud explains the movie she wants to make with Vilko, she describes a bloody image she has in mind: “Streams of red on surgical white tiles.”
That’s something I like very much. In almost all my films I like that kind of design. It’s beautiful to me.
Abuse of Weakness has a creaminess to its color palette, with many shades of white and off-white, as if to pinpoint a blankness.
The whites, the reds, the browns are also the color of romance, and they’re the special colors of the painter George de La Tour. And I think they’re very, very beautiful together. In the beginning of the film I wanted it completely abstract—just the white sheet on the bed—so you cannot know if it’s a mountain or what. And then you realize it can’t be a mountain when the sheet begins to move. We had to shoot the sheet before it begins moving for two or three minutes, and I said to Isabelle: “Oh, the sheets aren’t playing good, they’re not beautiful, and you have to try moving them again with your feet because they can’t looked ‘arranged.’” It’s like a painting, in fact, an almost abstract painting or photograph of a mountain with snow on it. And then when she begins to move, you see her white skin, which I love having in all my films.
It seems like at the beginning of the film, the dominant color is white and then as it progresses you fill out the palette, but they’re monochrome colors: somebody wearing all black, for instance.
When I decided on the costume and told Isabelle I wanted her to be all in black, with those very thin trousers, she said to me: “Never, never!” So then I told her: “Isabelle, you have to know that for me the location is also a costume. You’re surrounded by white, and it’s as if you’re ink in a Japanese painting.”
So that she’s like a line drawn across the screen.
Yes, this brings me pleasure. I think film has to tell a story and have all the emotions that come with that but also the emotions of colors. I’ve been doing that, in fact, since my first feature, A Real Young Girl. My inspiration was Luminist American painting, but after that, I made some more realistic films. Since then, I’ve really taken a lot of care in choosing what colors to use. Fat Girl is a specific green, purple, and yellow, but not lemon yellow, yellow like you find in India. I’m very attentive to the use of color.
Even from one scene to the next, the colors respond evocatively to one another, so that these choices register over the film as a whole.
When Vilko falls in Maud’s esteem, she wears a horrible nightgown in this horrible violet—she doesn’t care to seduce him, she doesn’t want to be elegant. Her choice signifies that she does not in fact consider him a man. She’s wearing something like an old dress, very different from what you would wear if you were going out. She doesn’t care about him like she did when they first met.
For the last scene [a meeting between Maud and her family], I found that location very late in preproduction. We couldn’t find a space that would fit a desk big enough that I’d be able to have Maud’s entire family on one side with her alone on the other side. When I finally found a place, it was a very beautiful room with beautiful objects in it. I thought Maud should be alone on one side of the table, like she was in an aquarium, with a magnificent green silk curtain behind her, a special green that I love. She had to be surrounded by fragile colors that could go against her slightly red hair, her pale, pale skin, and I asked my costume assistant to buy me some natural Shantung silk to make Isabelle a coat especially for that location. I also had her buy a silk shirt, which had to be almond-green, and a little blood red coral necklace, so that the coral necklace is like a line of blood—I wanted a color similar to the blood when Amira Casar cuts herself [in Anatomy of Hell, 04].
Before shooting we hung a number of costumes against the background of that location to make sure I had made the right choice and I think Isabelle wanted very much for us to choose this pink silk shirt with black embroidery on it and the black Guy Laroche coat, which belonged to me when I was younger and which we had fitted for Isabelle. I can’t wear it anymore, since the brain stroke. The scene without that shirt, without that color, even if she played it the same way, would be different. It’s because of these colors that she looks so lost, and pale, and lost not only in herself but distant from the other people in the scene, who are in the pragmatic world, the reasonable one. So you see the misunderstanding between them: she’s in another world not only because she didn’t know what she was doing but also because, at the same time, it’s not her. She lost the comprehension of a normal person, even those who love her very much and she doesn’t understand herself, as well. I think that this con man not only takes all her money away but also her personality and that is much worse.
When Maud writes Vilko all the checks, he helps her hold the checkbook. And they have this banter back and forth, insulting each other as she gives in to his demands.
She does, but she doesn’t really want to. She does it because he asks her to, but why does she write him the check? From the beginning it’s not really normal and after that it’s like, well, if she wrote one she’ll write another. It’s like a torrent, a habit. Something you do every day without thinking about. But after the first time he explains that, “If you are not happy to give me the money, then I’ll give it back.” And she says, “No, no.” That’s just a strategy of the con man, and she’s closed in by this strategy. I don’t know if people realize that. When Vilko begins helping Maud, almost every day, they become friends, very close, and nominally he is also rich but maybe he has the money in some “fiscal paradise.” If Maud made the film they would get money, French money, so in fact she can think he would be able to repay her.
When he helps her walk in the street, if she had a normal body he would never do that for her. It’s a little like something you would do for a lover. It’s a very intimate gesture when he lifts her into the car. For me this is also the story of a sick body against a very healthy body. The sick body is of course like a child in the hands of the healthy body. At the same time, it’s ambiguous because he doesn’t just want to take her money away, he’s doing a sort of seduction. He has a real friendship with her, with real affection. But it’s the affection of a scorpion. Everything has to be in his interest. The whole relationship is almost that of lovers. Not physical love but perhaps like two adolescents.
The second time she writes him a check, I don’t want to explain why, so I treat it like an American comedy. I was thinking of Monsieur Verdoux. Even at the end, she doesn’t want to write the checks, because it’s boring to write when you only have one working hand. I think it’s also a very amusing relationship, like when they’re in the two bedrooms next to each other and she doesn’t want to give him a pillow. He’s in a very uncomfortable bed, like the one from Kazan’s Baby Doll: the bed of a girl, a little girl, not of a man, and she doesn’t give him a sheet, doesn’t want to give him a pillow. All that is the amusement of adolescents.
That reminds me of when Vilko is trying to persuade Maud to write a book with him by saying their names would be together “for all eternity.” It’s the way a teenager thinks of love.
Yes, in a certain sense. But at the same time it’s a way to hide how and why she’s giving him the checks, because he asks her to put that it’s an advance on the writing of their novel, which is completely incredible. Not just because it’s 50,000 [euros] but also because only an editor would give an advance on a book, never a co-author. So it’s a mixture of adolescent love, with thoughts of “eternity,” like drawing a heart on a tree, but also for him a way to seduce her while taking the money. It’s always ambiguous because he is almost in love with her. Sometimes she dominates him and sometimes he dominates her.
Do you think that he likes being dominated by her?
Perhaps. But I’m not so sure, because as I said, she’s dominated, as well. She doesn’t have freedom of movement, and he helps her, like when her hand is broken. It’s very strange when he feeds her the sandwich to eat like she’s a child, and this can be a domination if it’s done without tenderness. Maud’s daughter feeds her, too, but she’s very cold about it, while Vilko has a sort of tenderness, but also spite. It’s in Maud’s character to always be the dominant one, but her weak body allows him the ability to dominate her.
In the scene where Maud is fed by her daughter there’s a shot of Maud’s own mother sitting on a couch tearing at her diaper.
Maud knows she’s the next one who’ll become like the grandmother. Of course, generation after generation becomes the old, nice grandmother, and Maud sees that she’s very close. She tells Vilko that she’s “half a corpse” and the grandmother is “half a corpse” as well, but without her brain intact. Maud still has that.
When Maud looks over at her mother she’s confronted by a fear, and also something that’s inevitable.
Of course, because it is her future. Very soon, in fact. You know, when I’m at the airport or rail station I always ask for a wheelchair, and when you’re in a wheelchair, the normal persons won’t look at you because you’re not at eye level. You only see another person’s face if you stare up at them, and that is a sort of domination.
Was it difficult getting used to those things day after day?
Yes, objectively, yes. To be in a wheelchair, to have an invalid body, everyone can dominate you very easily. But at the same time, I am very, very, very strong. When I’m on set, I am the chef, I dominate everybody. Because on the set, it’s my brain I’m imposing with to make the film. The first day working with Isabelle was difficult because we are two very tyrannical women. Of course, she is only the actress—she has to understand that, and me, I am the author. She is just material for me—wonderful material, a Stradivarius. A great violinist with a Stradivarius makes the greatest music. But she is the Stradivarius, I am the virtuoso. At the same time Isabelle is a virtuoso as an actress. But of course I have to dominate her. The first day was difficult, but after that we were like sisters.
She didn’t want to play me, she wanted to play Maud, a fiction. Physically she’s not like me, she’s very different, but after a while she became more like me. I never directed her in this sense. All of my actors end up resembling me closely. Anne Parillaud in Sex Is Comedy is very far off from me both as a character and physically, but after, she was like me and I don’t want that. I think it’s because I’m tyrannical. In all my films I reveal myself even when I want to hide within a character, so that all my actresses finish looking like me. By magnetism, by impression. Like very close friends who end up looking like they’re from the same family. Or the manner in which you laugh. Isabelle didn’t want to laugh like me but by the end she did, even though I didn’t impose it on her.
Because the actors become so similar to you in certain ways, when you look back at the movies do you relate to them in part as these time capsules of your behavior?
Yes, because I don’t know where I get the courage from. I am usually very shy. My sort of film is very intimate, and I’ve always said that my story is the story of everybody if I tell what’s real, the truth, what one person would never say to another but which I say to the spectators. And this way, a person will think it’s their story I’m telling, because everybody has the same emotions, the same shyness, the same shame. I know only me, so if I project these things onto a fictional character, of course it’s fictional but of course it’s also me. When I’m shooting a film suddenly nothing can forbid me, even shame or shyness, to do what I think is beautiful and ambiguous and has a feeling of humanity. But sometimes when I see my films once they’re finished, I think: “Oh, how can I have done that?”
I’m also very much a puritan. I love sin, but I’m still a puritan. And I think that’s why I make these brutal films. Also, when I was young I read many, many books, and I noticed that the great authors, whenever they write about sex and love, are vulgar and brutal and against women, with a fierce alpha violence—and that is something I love. As a director, I take delight in and have a propensity for doing things like that. So sometimes when I read about how I’m a feminist I think, “Yes, in my life, politically,” but in my films you find lots of masochism and with my female characters I’m not politically correct enough for feminists. In France, they don’t accept me, but one critic loved my film because I explained that a woman has to be a masochist in order to love men. I think I have the anatomy of a woman and the authority of what normally belongs to a man.
I love to experiment with this authority on strong men—for example, the technicians and workers on set. I was friends with the director of Gaumont and when I told him I wanted to make films he explained to me: “Oh, no, Catherine, you are a dandy, you speak in a slow voice, you cannot direct workers, they’re very masculine.” But it’s not in my manner to be commanding. I never give orders. My manner is more a fascination, a sort of mysterious magnetism: step by step, everybody on the set becomes the film—they become like me. I do nothing directly to make this happen, I don’t know how it works because I never give orders. Yes, I make the choreography very, very precisely, and I make the costumes and almost all the set decorations, but after that I don’t give orders. Even with the actors, they have to respect my chorography of the scenes, but I never work with them beforehand. On the set I don’t tell them what they have to do, I shoot the first take without giving any direction, because if it was marvelous and magic, after that I won’t be able to get it again. But it’s very rare that the first take is marvelous so I say to them, with real violence, I think, “What did you do?”
I direct by the contrary, by the opposite. When I was younger I found who I was in my opposition to the adults, to everybody, because I am very proud and I hated being a child and obeying, even obeying my sister, who was older than me. I direct in the same manner, by saying what is bad and boring in their performance. The first time they’ll often play the scene with psychology, using their own logic to understand the lines and that is completely boring for me. I always say to them, if they act the scene like that, then why make the film—I can publish a book instead! I tell them that there’s something between the words and the silence that they aren’t giving me, that they have to surprise me. Then I tell them, for example, maybe when you’re speaking you are lying to this other person or perhaps you are very sincere and you’re lying to yourself.
I always say that cinema is like an ideogram, these abstractions: you have 26 letters to work, like in the Occidental alphabet, and with this you can explain the entire world. But it’s very linear. What’s so exciting for me about making movies is when, with these 26 letters, you have two opposite, ambiguous feelings in the same moment. It's violent and unexplainable. If I can get this to happen in a single shot, it’s magical and everybody on set becomes silent with emotion. I’m very tyrannical with the actors but sometimes I try not to be, because it’s all about creating these emotions, and they’ve taught me something about what are the real movements and the underground movements of our emotional life. I don’t know how to talk about my scripts before we start shooting, it’s like something that’s inside myself that I don’t want to admit or talk about. I think this might be complicated for Americans to understand because producers always want to know before production starts what the author intends to do. In fact, all you have to do is just shoot the script as written and you can’t know anything about it before you start shooting.
Sometimes I’m afraid of a scene and I’ll cut out certain lines because they’re too ridiculous. For instance, at the end of the film when Isabelle says, “Like in the supermarket” [comparing overstocking a shopping cart with writing checks to Vilko], it explains the reality of what happened but it’s also a ridiculous thing to say. Suddenly, I became afraid of my own phrase, thinking that it’s an impossible thing for her to say, but Isabelle told me: “No, no, I want to say it.” In that last scene, which was our last day of shooting, she did everything perfectly in the first take, without my having to say a thing. She had become my actress, who belongs only to me and no one else.
To me this film is quite similar to the previous two, Bluebeard  and Sleeping Beauty . It feels like another fairy tale: the intensity of the central relationships, the sublimated nature of romantic love and sexual desire. Did you feel it was similar in those ways while making it?
Perhaps, but Anatomy of Hell was as well. Anatomy of Hell is about a beautiful woman and a beast, really. As I was born a girl, I was also born with Beauty and the Beast as a part of my outlook and I’m always working with these fairy tale themes. Now I want to make another film about rape, but it’s so not politically correct, and I don’t know how to get money for it. The world is getting more and more politically correct, more academic.
What would the story of that film be?
As I said, I never know exactly what it is I want to do. But I know it would be violent for everybody, toward everybody. That’s what I like, violent and brutal and emotional at the same time.
There’s a heavy dreamlike quality to Abuse of Weakness, especially with the many scenes of Maud asleep or slowly waking up. They seem of central importance to the film.
Because of my condition, in order for me to stand up, I have to be very concentrated. It takes a lot of energy and afterwards I have to rest for a long time. When I’m tired, I have to go to bed right away otherwise I’m in danger of falling.
What was your experience working with Kool Shen?
So strange, because I’m in one world, Isabelle’s in another, and he’s off in his own world as well. He’s a very aggressive rapper, which is what I wanted and why I chose him. There was a cultural gap between him, Isabelle and me. Kool Shen is so intelligent, very impressive: he has a cold, mathematical intelligence. Isabelle was fascinated by him because he never performed with emotion, always understanding the scene very coldly. He never tried to charm her, not at all like a gigolo. The original was more like a gigolo, always trying to charm. I think he becomes stronger like that and their relationship is more complex. What is rare, for all actors, French ones especially, is the ability to act a scene with this brilliant light of love in their eyes. He did it effortlessly. Then at night he would go off to play poker and he lost a lot of money doing that.
The first time we met he was quite different, though. In English it’s always “you” but in French one can say tu, which is the familiar way to say “you,” or vous, which is more distant. The first time I met Kool Shen, I said vous and we were both on the defensive. When you meet with a prospective actor it’s they who have to do the charming and you can dupe yourself about who you really want after getting to know them and doing a screen test. With Kool Shen I felt right after the first screen test that I definitely wasn’t making a mistake. He is the character, he has the brutality, a body that can enter a space and take it, make it his property.
So my producer and I called his agent to offer him the role, but then I started watching the test again and again and again and suddenly I realized that I’d made a mistake. Yes, he was good with some passages and in the way he used his body, but some other passages weren’t so good. I did some tests with other actors and I called Kool Shen to say that I think we’re both on dangerous ground. Because even though he is the character, I didn’t know if he could handle all the scenes, especially because I do a lot of long, long shots and I wanted this distance. So I showed him his test and the tests of the other actors and pointed out: “Here it’s you who is the best, here it’s him who did better with that line.”
Kool Shen despised Rocancourt and I think it is impossible to play somebody you despise and it becomes a caricature. Then we did another test to see if he could do the scenes without his own construction of the character, without psychology, and I had him do the scenes of seduction from Fat Girl, very bourgeois, a long monologue, almost three pages. He went off to learn the lines, and when he came back for that second test I was afraid, if it turned out he was bad, that I wouldn’t know how to tell him. I never watch the actors in front of me, I always watch the television monitor. It’s not the same thing in front of you that’s on the TV—cinema isn’t theater, it’s not flesh, it’s image and frame. My assistant shot the test and read the girl’s lines, and Kool Shen spoke the lines like they were his own, like he wasn’t an actor in a scene but a person in their real life. The first take was so beautiful and we did it a second time, of course, and a third time, and it was always beautiful. He was so tired by the end but still had such fervor, such passion, and we knew that we didn’t even need to watch the test, that I’d be able to get exactly what I wanted from him on set, this sort of fever, this trance. Unlike with Isabelle, after that I never had to fight with him.
All the relationships in the film are defined by their power dynamics: Vilko, Maud’s assistant and producer, her family. The focus is on who has control and where it comes from—who has the ability to command a situation and why.
Maud controls the situation but she can’t control herself. Being with Vilko she forgets she’s an invalid. She’s lost the ability to defend herself because, with him, her life becomes sweeter. It’s very complicated. When I’m making a film I’m not an invalid, but in my normal life, when I wake up every day, it’s very hard. Even if I want to get a book from my library, it’s impossible and that’s always a surprise for me. At the same time, I’m always laughing, but that’s a protection. If I thought about how difficult it is for me to stand up, to move around, I’d have to cry, so I prefer to laugh. If I go out to buy something I can’t be elegant, I have to wear a backpack, which is awful and not my style.
My life is a continual balancing of the elegant and the horrible, what’s difficult to do and what I have power over. In the difficulty of my body, of course, I am a loser. But I’m also a winner when I’m really me, when I talk to people, when I speak about film—I have an energy for these things and that’s something that can never be stopped.