Director: Catherine Breillat
Runtime: 105 minutes
Truth can be stranger than fiction, but that doesn't automatically make it more compelling. A story's basis in real events is not a get out of jail free card, no matter how personal the events are. This is a big part of why Catherine Breillat's Abuse of Weakness is often such a frustrating viewing experience. Taken from an incident in Breillat's own life, the film opens and closes magnificently, yet much of the middle is barren when it comes to insight or psychological tension. And much of the success of the beginning and end have less to do with Breillat's work than with the considerable skills of Isabelle Huppert, the film's star.
The incident in question is a stroke that leaves sharp film director Maud (Huppert) partially paralyzed. Breillat's opening shot is beautiful in its composition and sinister in its content, and gets the film off to a fabulous start. As the camera glides over Maud's white sheets, we see movement, as if some sort of creature is crawling up her body. Moments later, we're met with the crushing realization that there is no one else. There are only the pained, twitchy movements of Maud's body as it seizes up and betrays her, leading to a devastating fall.
From there Breillat takes us through expected territory, with Maud realizing what has happened, struggling to cope, and initially moving forward with her life, doing her best to control her half dead body. These scenes all provide magnificent room for Huppert to do what she does best: communicating psychological pain through her immensely expressive face. The viewer knows next to nothing about Maud during most of the hospital scenes, yet watching her fight against her body to try and learn how laugh again is still wrenching to behold. The added bonus here is the exhausting physical work the role requires of the actress. Her movements are strange, but they never come off as cheap ploys for sympathy. Up to this point, Abuse of Weakness seems like an austere, yet gripping character study and psychological drama. And then the actual plot kicks in.
Determined to go back to work as soon as she can, Maud becomes fixated by the story of notorious con man Vilko (French rapper Kool Shen). Convicted of fraud, Vilko has recently completed his time in prison, and is now getting as much mileage as he can out of his story. For Maud, he (and only he, no actual actors) is the perfect subject for her next project, which she begins to tailor to Vilko's demeanor as much as possible. After mild hesitation, Vilko accepts her offer, yet insists on spending as much time with Maud before shooting (something she prefers not to do prior to actual production).
It doesn't take too long before Vilko starts channeling Dirk Bogarde in The Servant, and becomes far too prominent in Maud's life (and, worse, her finances). Yet where Abuse of Weakness stalls is in its iffy character trajectories from this point on. Maud is obviously a keen observer of people, so it's understandable why she's drawn to Vilko as a person. But when she starts writing him checks for large sums of money, something rings false. Vilko doesn't enter her life as a deceptive wallflower. His coarseness is apparent from their first conversation. Why then does someone as astute as Maud fall prey to a figure like this, over and over again?
The story's intrigue quickly dissipates once the checks start going into Vilko's pocket, and Abuse of Weakness never quite recovers from this big misstep. With Maud now left to simply listen to Vilko and spend time observing him, Huppert suddenly has little to work with other than her exaggerated physical work (barring one excellent scene at a beach-side cafe). The film's final scene lays out a compelling dilemma of identity and denial, yet it's a bit of a cop out given the film's sluggish mid-section. The tension between Maud and Vilko simply never amounts to much, because it's hard to believe that the former wouldn't see through the latter's manipulation almost immediately. By the time the situation escalates, and Vilko is sleeping at Maud's house, the film has completely run out of energy, yet plods along as though it was doing something other than giving us more of the same.
When these events happened to Breillat, they must have been wrenching and fraught with emotional complexity. Yet in turning to this moment of her life as inspiration she has delivered a film that goes exactly where you know it's going to go from the moment everything is set up. After such promise, Abuse of Weakness merely goes through the motions without much of anything to offer making it neither a satisfying character study or low-key psychological drama. The captivating start all-too-quickly gives way to a rather flat "and then this happened, and then we did this, and...." method of storytelling that doesn't accomplish enough to give the layered finale any proper heft. Abuse of Weakness ultimately lives or dies by whether Huppert has engaging material to work with. The actress does her formidable best when she can, but those opportunities are few and far between. Sometimes, even the the most unflinchingly honest truths need more than just the facts.