TIFF13 REVIEW: Abus de faiblesse [Abuse of Weakness] [2014]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: 14A | Runtime: 105 minutes | Release Date: February 2014 (France)
Studio: Rézo Films
Director(s): Catherine Breillat
Writer(s): Catherine Breillat

“Nothing will ever be the same”

The draw of Catherine Breillat‘s autobiographical film Abus de faiblesse [Abuse of Weakness] is ultimately to watch how someone so desperately in need can be preyed upon no matter intelligence, wealth, or stature. When tragedy strikes unannounced by means of a debilitating stroke, the fear of death and paralysis eventually makes its way to newfound tenacity and strength. But what no one who isn’t absolutely indebted to the help of others for even menial tasks like opening a door can know is that the simple act of showing up can prove all-powerful. A friend with the rare quality of not tainting every kindness with a healthy dose of pity is everything. When that person is the only one taking the time to call and visit each day, you can’t really be blamed for doing whatever possible to repay the favor.

Here’s the problem, though. While Isabelle Huppert delivers a stunning portrayal as the director’s stand-in Maud Schoenberg, one glaring fact prevented me from providing my undivided sympathy. The con man of this tale (French rapper Kool Shen‘s Vilko Piran) isn’t some wolf in sheep’s clothing. Maud knows exactly who he is (an ex-con), what he’s done (fleece millions from rich and poor), and invites him in precisely for those traits. She sees his remorseless confidence during a TV interview and believes him to be the perfect fit for her first film post-stroke. I know it’s judgmental to say, but it’s impossible to not think it’s therefore all her fault. In an inspired bit of clarity, however, I believe Breillat feels the exact same way.

Why else would she include an early scene of best friend Ezzé (Christophe Sermet) telling her Vilko’s maliciously dangerous and needs to be sent away? Her reaction: laughter. It’s as though she wants so much to prove she can take care of her own affairs that Vilko becomes her proof. If she can handle this loose cannon and temperamental bad boy who revels in the description, she has officially recovered. I’m not sure anyone could have foreseen the level of compassion she would cultivate let alone the desire to give him exactly what she knew he was a professional at taking. Maybe that first check for a hundred grand was a test to see if he could be trusted. But checks two, three, four? Those simply cannot be justified.

I’d like to believe this is exactly why Breillat decided to be so candid with her unbelievable activities at a period of extreme weakness. She would have every right to blame her family for not being there when she needed them—and to a point she does—but it ultimately all falls on her shoulders. She wasn’t coerced or held at gunpoint. She actually thought she’d have the upper hand when getting him to agree to write a bum check himself to pay her back. It’s a tragic state of affairs that everyone is susceptible to becoming a victim of if they’re not careful. Abuse of Weakness therefore serves as Breillat’s public service announcement to say, “Be vigilant”. It’s always someone close to home that hurts you the most.

Even so, the film may go a bit too far in driving this point home because the constant duping and her consistent check writing as though in a trance becomes a tiring mantra. I get that we need to see how helpless she is to really understand the silent struggle she’s fighting, but when is it too much? The whole ordeal is so intense and intimately personal that the length may actually be a product of Breillat’s own coping process. Film is her canvas and she is baring her soul through the darkest and most embarrassing period of her life. Seeing is believing and she puts everything onscreen to ensure the lesson won’t be forgotten. To those ends I completely understand her choices despite their inherent redundancy.

What no one can fault, however, are the fantastic performances bringing this memoir to life. Shen looks and feels the part so effortlessly that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Breillat found him much the same way she did the character he’s portraying. With natural charisma and the ability to go from fierce monster to soft, empathetic charity case at the blink of an eye, I’d have believed him too if not for the fact we all know his game at the start. It’s so authentic to see him turn on the charm and watch Huppert’s face light up in response. He has her from minute one and knows it. But what’s worse is that he flaunts it with extravagant gifts for wife Andy (Laurence Ursino) as a way to gloat his victory mere days after the latest check.

If the film will be remembered for anything besides its harrowing true story, though, you don’t have to look further than Huppert. From the opening scene lying naked in bed and desperately trying to feel her arm before an attempt to stand drops her on the floor until she admits her naïveté to family at the end, Maud is a force of attitude, grace, and courage. She needs to be for us to realize how weak she is beneath the facade. It’s her verbal sparring with Vilko that actually gets her into so much trouble. He preys on her desire to be in control and uses it to his advantage by pretending to be more helpless than she. Only when the game is over and reality sinks in do we see her fragility in a stunningly adept moment of truth.

courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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