With her latest project, French auteur Catherine Breillat follows up brilliantly on her last two fairy-tale films, Bluebeard (2009) and The Sleeping Beauty (2010). The semi-autobiographical Abuse of Weakness centers a sleeping beauty about to meet her Bluebeard.
Maud — played by Isabelle Huppert, who is formidable in every scene and gesture — wakes up one morning under fresh, white sheets and notices that there is something wrong with her left arm. She tries to get up and collapses. It takes all her strength to reach the phone. "Half my body is dead," she says, realizing that "nothing will ever be the same."
Having suffered a stroke herself, Breillat’s depicts Maud’s brain hemorrhage in the emergency room in a tone that’s unsentimental, poignant, free. Maud, too, is a filmmaker by profession — one who eventually crawls out of the abyss.
Or so she thinks. Again, like Breillat, Maud meets a charismatic swindler who romances her — and eventually fleeces her dry. Breillat ultimately took her aggressor to court and defeated him in a well documented case of abus de faiblesse ("abuse of weakness"), the legal term for what happened to her.
It had been a dozen years since I last spoke with Breillat, who also directed Fat Girl (2001), Sex is Comedy (2002), and Anatomy of Hell (2004). This time, we discussed the first thing she wanted to do after her stroke, the film that became too dangerous to make after her medical catastrophe, and how to twist Isabelle Huppert’s arms into starring in your film.
Anne-Katrin Titze: In 2001, when you were presenting Fat Girl at the New York Film Festival, I asked you what your favorite fairy tale was. Without a second of hesitation, you said, "Bluebeard."
Catherine Breillat: Of course. I had finished The Last Mistress (2007), and I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t want to wait. [Bluebeard] was a television project. They were so surprised because I wrote the script, made the casting, made the costumes, found the location. After three weeks, I was ready to shoot. One week before the start, I had a stroke. Many other filmmakers then wanted to do Bluebeard.
AKT: But they waited for you. Bluebeard is yours. Is that the cast of Bluebeard that you show in Abuse of Weakness?
CB: That’s [the cast of] The Sleeping Beauty. All the little girls. [Her swindler Christopher] Rocancourt was with me all the time. At three o’clock, all the mothers with their children would come [for the casting]. And I told him to leave.
AKT: It’s a strong scene in your film. Maud throws him out. It says a lot about the relationship. The gestures say it all. Not only does Vilko [the Rocancourt character played by Kool Shen] get her to write checks for him, but he holds the checkbook for her and he tears them out of the booklet. The most violent writing of checks I have seen.
CB: Yes, he wants the money very quickly.
AKT: Early on in the film, at the hospital, after Maud had the stroke, there is a scene where she tells the speech therapist that she "would like to laugh." Can you talk about film and reality here?
CB: It was the first thing I wanted. I was paralyzed, but I promised myself to never, never, never complain. When I did [rehabilitation], I began to cry because it was too strong [and] I apologized. I didn’t know my mouth was like that. I didn’t look in the mirror. Because I wanted to laugh, I did these exercises [until] my mouth looked normal. Because I wanted to [be able to] laugh.
AKT: You show the learning process. How Maud, or you, or both, had to learn colors and tell time again.
CB: All stroke victims at the beginning cannot draw a clock, finish [writing out the numbers on] the clock. It’s called héminégligence [Hemispatial neglect, a neuropsychological condition causing visual neglect].
AKT: Tell me about the jumps in time. Suddenly Maud is much better. Time leaps have the audience catch up.
CB: All my movies do that. The [step-by-step] telling [of a] story, that’s not cinema. After the hospital, Maud just wants to make a movie. Like me. My producer told me that I have to renounce doing it all by myself. I always chose everything myself, even the smallest embroidery [pointing to her neck, suggesting a detail in the collar] like in The Last Mistress.
The film I wanted to do [an adaptation of her novel, Bad Love] with Naomi [Campbell] — she is, of course, very explosive and complicated. I wanted to have a man to match [Breillat envisioned Rocancourt]. I also wanted to shoot in a lighthouse in the middle of the Atlantic, which is so difficult. The current is so strong there, and it’s so dangerous. I want a challenge. [But] after the stroke, it was very, very difficult.
AKT: Vilko, the swindler, says to Maud, "We could have been Bonnie and Clyde." What do you think about the fascination with them?
CB: It is so romantic to be Bonnie and Clyde. Rocancourt said he was tricking the most famous stars in America, [that] the most famous people in Los Angeles, like De Niro, gave him money. But it was not true. In fact, I think there were only two people he took money from, me and Michel Polnareff. No Americans, just French.
AKT: How did casting Isabelle Huppert come about?
CB: I’d wanted to work with Isabelle for some time. I took the phone and said, "Isabelle, if you want to shoot a movie with me, then do this one. You have to interpret this character because afterwards, you cannot make a movie with me because perhaps I will be dying." [Breillat smiles]
AKT: A bit of blackmail? She said yes. How could she refuse?
CB: Yes. She understood that I really, really desired her. I made it impossible for her to say no.
AKT: A very good decision.
CB: There is the seductive attitude between the two. He is a swindler, but the "abuse of weakness" is not violent. In France we have two versions of "abuses of weakness" — with violence or consent. [The latter is] the manipulation of someone [into doing] something when they are compromised. Judicially, in France, even a pregnant woman falls into the "weakness" category.
AKT: Can you talk about your decision to have her look into the camera in the end? The gaze of agency?
CB: For me, in the end, there are all these people who look at her, who are normal. She looks at them and their normalcy, and there is nothing.
AKT: She realizes the emptiness in them?
CB: They love her. They are nice. But what is the normalcy of life? It is absurd to be normal. If your conception of life is as boring as that, if you want a life without danger — then you are just born to die, not to live. Because living is dangerous.
Abuse of Weakness opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on August 15.
Anne-Katrin Titze is the New York Critic for Eye For Film. She is a lecturer on fiction, film, fashion, and fairy tales and curates conversations and panels with filmmakers at universities and various cultural venues. Titze is also a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation-licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator.