Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie Review: Abuse of Weakness

Abuse of Weakness
Directed by: Catherine Breillat.
Written by: Catherine Breillat.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert (Maud Shainberg), Kool Shen (Vilko Piran), Laurence Ursino (Andy), Christophe Sermet (Ezzé), Ronald Leclercq (Gino), Fred Lebelge (Présentateur TV), Tristan Schotte (Antoine), Daphné Baiwir (Hortense), Dimitri Tomsej (Louis), Nicolas Steil (Père de Louis), Jean-François Lepetit (Jean-Paul).

French director Catherine Breillat has never shied away from using her own life as the model for her characters – more implicitly, and at times rather explicitly. Despite this however, she has never been a director much interested in explaining her characters actions – her characters are defined by what they do, not why they do it. This works in some of her films – the controversial Fat Girl was stunning, and ambiguous, and have made other films practically insufferable – like Romance. Her latest film, Abuse of Weakness, draws on her experiences from 10 years ago – when she suffered a stroke and in the aftermath was the victim of a notorious conman – giving away thousands of dollars. Abuse of Weakness has a few stunning sequences in it – the opening and closing scenes are brilliant – but the rest of the film is so vague, so short on motivation that the film simply becomes frustrating.

In the film, the great Isabelle Huppert stars as Maud Shainberg, a successful film maker, with grown children, but no husband. She suffers a stroke in the opening scene that leaves her debilitated for the rest of the movie. While she rather quickly regains the ability to speak, she can walk only with the aid of a cane – and even then, not very well – she falls over more than once in the film, and requires helps to do just about everything. But she doesn’t want to be in some sort of home, and her children have their own lives to lead – which leaves her on her own. At the same time, she is preparing a new film – about a criminal and a celebrity. On TV one night, she sees an interview with Vilko Piran (rapper Kool Shen) – a notorious conman, out of jail after 12 years for stealing millions of dollars, from the rich and poor alike. Maud sees Vilko as the embodiment of her male lead – and wants to cast him, even though he isn’t an actor. She meets with him, and as they prepare for the film, Vilko starts being everything for her – picking her up, helping her do the things her children are too busy to do, and being a constant companion. But his companionship comes at a cost – small at first, but ever increasing. He just needs a few thousand Euros to help him out of a jam – it’s a short term loan you see, or an advance on a future project, As the debt gets bigger, Vilko starts asking for more – for a can’t miss investment, which will allow him to pay her back in one shot. Meanwhile, the film has stalled, Maud is going deeper in debt to the bank, she has to stop renovations on her house, and everything is crumbling. But still, she keeps signing the cheques.

The central question in the movie is why. Why would Maud willingly give this man, who she knows is a conman, all that money? It’s a question that the film doesn’t even attempt to answer for most of the running time, only in the final scene, where Maud has to explain to her family what she has done – and even then, the answers are unconvincing. All of this makes Abuse of Weakness an ambiguous film, but also a frustrating one. It would be one thing if the film was interesting, but the problem with Abuse of Weakness is that it basically repeats the same few scenes again and again and again – Vilko asks for money, Maud signs the cheques, Maud asks for the money back, Vilko makes an excuse. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The film’s saving grave is Huppert, and to a lesser extent Kool Shen. Huppert is one of the best actresses on the planet, and she gives Maud more depth than what is on the page. It is a brilliant physical performance – as she transforms her body into that of a stroke victim, but it’s more than that – she gives Maud a profound sense of loneliness. The final scene in the movie is brilliantly played by Huppert – as she remains quiet in the face of her family’s rage. Kool Shen is convincing as a criminal, and makes him into a charming rogue – but not so charming that the audience cannot see through him. He’s clearly lying – the audience knows it, and so does Maud. But she gives him the money anyway.

Perhaps the reason why Abuse of Weakness doesn’t explain Maud’s actions is that Briellat herself doesn’t know – even though she lived through it. That I can believe. But before she set about making a movie about it, it’s something she probably should have figured out.

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