Sunday, September 28, 2014

Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse)

Isabelle Huppert (left), Kool Shen (center), and director Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat

ABUSE OF WEAKNESS (Abus de faiblesse)             C               
France  Germany  Belgium  (105 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Catherine Breillat 

I am the pariah of French cinema.  That can make things complicated for me:  it is never easy to drum up a budget or to find a distributor for my films in France.  Some people refuse even to read my scripts.  But it also makes me very happy because hatred is invigorating.  All true artists are hated.  Only conformists are ever adored.                        

—Catherine Breillat, "Catherine Breillat: 'All true artists are hated'", Benjamin Secher interview from The Telegraph, April 5, 2008

While in this film Breillat has eliminated the nudity and sex scenes that typify her earlier works, she continues to make exactly the same kind of film, featuring loathsome, nearly unwatchable characters who are masochistic victims of their own narcissistic empty headedness, gluttons for punishment so to speak.  What these films have to say about society at large is a major question, as there’s a decided disconnect between Breillat characters and real life, where the all-consuming, self-centered nature of the people populating her films, ruled as they are by their nagging obsessions, does not say much for the world at large, where they seem to exist in a vacuum.  The exaggerated human tendencies on display aren’t entirely implausible, as some people are capable of just about anything, but it’s entirely possible Breillat has never once created an onscreen character that viewers can actually identify with.  Instead the intent of her films seems to be provocative in nature, where the pervasive themes of sadomasochism, bourgeois emptiness and discontent, and sexual obsession seem to be goading the audience into unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable territory, where it often feels exploitive, as if placed on the screen for shock value.  With only one film in her entire body of work worth recommending, 36 FILLETTE (1988), an intelligent and somewhat autobiographical exposé of budding sexuality seen through the eyes of a young 14-year old female girl, many of the rest are major disappointments.  Breillat began her career as a novelist, published while still a 17-year old teenager, where success came early from writing a “dirty” novel, L 'homme facile (A Man for the Asking), the subject of some controversy in France where the female protagonist prefers rape to consensual sex, so the book was classified only for readership older than age 18.  This scandalous introduction along with the frank nudity and unsimulated sex scenes in her films led to her being labeled a “porno auteriste.”  At age 24 she played a role in Bertolucci’s THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), wrote a few sexploitation films for others, while making her own first film in her late 20’s, A REAL YOUNG GIRL (1976), which was only released 23-years afterwards due to the explicitness of the material, where it’s rare to see sexuality presented in such an unconventional and clinically bleak manner, where her later films continue to express graphic sexual depictions, including the use of a male porn star (Rocco Siffredi) to provide an erection in ROMANCE (1999) and ANATOMY OF HELL (2004).     

In late 2004 at the age of 56, Breillat suffered a stroke and was hospitalized for five months with paralysis on the left side of her body.  After learning to walk again, she completed the pre-production work of UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE (THE LAST MISTRESS, 2007), a controversial 19th century costume drama starring Asia Argento that was the only film made at that point in her career adapted from someone else’s material.  Her next project was to be an adaptation of her own novel, Bad Love, starring Naomi Campbell and Christophe Rocancourt, a notorious criminal who had already served five years in an American prison for defrauding multiple victims out of millions of dollars.  Known for working with non-professionals, Breillat’s initial recollections of Rocancourt, “He is so intelligent, so sincere, so arrogant.  You have to be arrogant to achieve anything in this life.  When I first saw him, I knew he would be perfect for my film.”  Over the course of the next several months, however, Rocancourt initially borrowed small sums of money from Breillat before swindling her out of more than 700,000 euros, for which he was convicted in 2012 and the planned film never made, a harrowing ordeal that she describes in her book, Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse), which was turned into this film, starring Isabelle Huppert as Maud, a stand-in for the filmmaker.  After suffering a stroke, where the director makes an uncredited appearance as an anonymous patient walking in the hospital corridor with a cane, Maud happens to see a television interview with con man Vilko Piran (French rapper Kool Shen), recently released from prison after serving his 12-year sentence for defrauding millions from unsuspecting victims, where she is utterly fascinated by his sexual swagger and total lack of remorse for his crimes, wanting him to star in her next movie.  When they meet, he’s instantly interested, but will only agree if the film shows him in a positive light, appearing to be smarter than he is, creating some mythical aura surrounding his criminal activities.  Due to her medical limitations, Maud needs help with many of her daily activities, where she remains partially paralyzed, yet in typical Breillat fashion, she exaggerates the grotesque through a continuing series of exhaustingly repetitive menial tasks, replicating the difficulties of recovering after a stroke, filled with a heightened state of frustration and personal insecurity.  Maud has a way of teasing Vilko’s masculinity, suggesting he is strong and able bodied, but belittles his poor lower class instincts and lack of education, where he is seemingly a terrible businessman, as he’s constantly owing money to people.  Initially she’s more than happy to help out by writing him a check for a loan, and he’s more than happy to take her money.

Over time, this process of writing checks becomes habit forming, where the amusing joking and teasing that defined their initial relationship becomes more disturbingly depressing, where they are more of a constant and nagging presence in each other’s lives, endlessly complaining about petty concerns, expressed through incessant cellphone calls that she receives from him as she lies in bed, constantly searching through the covers for her phone, where the repeated images of Maud lying asleep in bed begins to resemble that of a human corpse.  Vilko, on the other hand, is more of a thug, where he’s a shady character always looking for a big score, but he’s attracted to the aristocratic way of life that Maud leads, where she protects herself with wealth and status and is indifferent to the lives of others, barely even retaining any connection with her own family, so is it any wonder that he wants a piece of what she’s got?  While she initially has the upper hand, the roles reverse in the second half where the two of them are constantly playing power games, each trying to outdo the other in showing less concern, where writing checks is a way to express that she “doesn’t” care, that she’s not the least bit concerned, not allowing the physical struggles or hardships to phase her one bit.  It’s all an act they play, surrounded by walls of indifference, where there’s no sexual connection, only obligatory behavior, yet there’s an undercurrent of need that grows more desperate over time, where they each seem to thrive on the attention of the other.  Vilko recognizes that Maud treats men like slaves, where she enjoys humiliating her assistant by forcing him to fold her underwear, proudly wearing a veneer of independence, while she obviously enjoys being surrounded by the intoxication of his rugged masculinity, like having a male porn star around the house, recalling Huppert’s performance in Maurice Pialat’s LOULOU (1980), where she similarly abandons her bourgeois friends for the crudeness of an unemployed layabout.  Vilko, however, is able to take advantage of her pride and this false veneer of independence by playing upon her vanity, continually offering the impression that his own life is in shambles, that he’ll be destitute without another check, even as he lives in a five-star hotel that wraps the food service meals neatly in a box while tied in a bow, while also drinking vintage 2003 Chateau Margaux wine that currently retails for an average price of $931 a bottle, obviously charging a huge mark-up price when ordered at a hotel restaurant.  So while these two plead poverty, who are they fooling? — as they both continue to lead lavish lives surrounded by only the best that money can buy.  The absurdity of it all feels exaggerated and distorted to the point of being humorous, though not many would find this a human comedy, where the film plays upon a perceived human weakness, but it’s nothing either one of these characters would admit to, as they both get exactly what they ask for.    

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