The technological hindrances suffered by controversial French filmmaker Catherine Breillat during the (very brief) New York Film Festival press conference on Wednesday for her new film “Abuse of Weakness” pale in comparison to the tremendous physical incapacities undergone by her main protagonist Maud Shainburg (Isabelle Huppert).
A middle-aged film director, Shainburg suffers a brain hemorrhage in the movie’s first scene that leaves her with hemiplegia. She undergoes intense physical therapy only to retain a passable control of her body, her left arm and leg never fully recovering. Many will note the striking similarities to Breillat, who suffered a stroke in 2004 and whose own ability to move has been permanently debilitated. Huppert’s intensely physical performance manages to convey the buried rawness of someone whose life has to become extremely measured, where simple tasks like sitting down in a chair or making a sandwich have to be slowly and methodically executed.
That being said, this is no sentimental portrait of Shainburg’s physical triumph; Breillat’s film follows a much stranger and perversely comic course of events. Shortly after leaving the hospital, she comes across a TV interview with Vilko Piran, a conman fresh out of a twelve-year prison stint who shows little remorse for his money-swindling schemes. For reasons both elusive and direct (she mentions finding amusement in his “hangdog” appearance) she contacts him and proposes to make a film starring him. As they begin spending more and more time together, their relationship grows increasingly intense and complex, her casual infatuation with him leading her to give him several large-sum loans to keep his criminal dealings afloat. She gives into his pecuniary requests with only mild hesitation, sacrificing her own financial well-being with nary a hint of worry as if operating out of some sort of cerebral or intangible pleasure hidden away somewhere inside her, leading one to wonder who was really benefiting most from the relationship.
Breillat fans will also note her real-life connection with conman Christophe Rocancourt, whom she met to collaborate with on a film and ended up having him swindle her into debt, with Rocancourt eventually being sentenced to prison with the unique criminal charge that makes up the film’s title. These very specific details of her life render the film incredibly personal, but according to Breillat it is not entirely made up of events in her life. “I’m almost in the film, but not completely,” Breillat said to Amy Taubin at the film’s post-screening press conference. “It’s autobiographic, but it’s not a biopic.” In fact, perhaps there is more for us to ascertain of her real life through her work than we realize. “All of my movies are very close to myself, but no one knows,” Breillat said. “Often, I put a mix of imagination and myself.”
Communicating with Taubin and the audience via Skype along with an English translator who was also connected via a video conference, there were plenty of ways for things to get disconnected or lost in translation, and lo and behold, good old technology failed, with Breillat cutting out several times. After dealing with this technological nonsense, Taubin decided to very prematurely pull the plug. “I think this is truly torture, more torture than what you’d put your actors through,” Taubin joked of the constant hassle in communication. “So I think we’ll just let you go. It’s a wonderful film, and we look forward to seeing you in New York very much.”