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On Set With Catherine Breillat: “I never really invent anything”

On Set With Catherine Breillat: “I never really invent anything”

Even at age 64, Catherine Breillat remains one of French cinema’s true enfants terribles. Her latest project, “Abus de faiblesse,” is an autobiographical film about her complex relationship with French conman Christophe Rocancourt. Isabelle Huppert stars as Maude, Breillat’s fictional alter ego in the film, and Indiewire was invited onto the set in Brussels before Christmas.

Breillat’s last two works, “Bluebeard” and “Sleeping Beauty,” were jocular takes on well-know fairy tales by Charles Perrault. But “Abus de faiblesse,” her new project, is based on an autobiographical novel of the same name (which literally translates as “Abuse of Weakness”) and hits much closer to home.

Though when looking for the villa where a large part of the upcoming film was shot, in a sleepy if leafy suburb south of Brussels, it doesn’t immediately feel like stepping into Breillat’s world: She’s French, after all, not Belgian. 

“Well, all my films have been pretty autobiographical,” explains Breillat when I finally catch her on set, sitting next to her monitor. Since she suffered a stroke in 2004, her ability to move around has been severely limited. She’s able to walk only very short distances while leaning on an assistant, whose only job is to look after Breillat’s physical needs. But the man’s almost invisible and Breillat is someone who speaks a lot, and fast: “I never really invent anything in my films, especially the dialogues,” she continues. “I’ve taken all these words from somewhere, though I do mix things up a lot. I’m like a computer, I save all this information that surrounds me and at a certain point, I spit it out again.” 

What the doyenne of female-centric French cinema has spat out this time is an ambitious project, based on a recent incident that happened in her own life, in which Huppert stars as the film director Maude, a thinly veiled version of Breillat. Opposite the hard-working veteran actress, Breillat has cast French rapper Kool Shen, for whom it’s his first onscreen appearance. He plays real-life con man Christophe Rocancourt, called Vilko in the film, who swindles Maude out of her life’s savings.

(In real life, Rocancourt smooth talked Breillat into giving him all her money while she was preparing an English-language film that would have cast Rocancourt opposite Naomi Campbell. Needless to say, the project never came to fruition.)

Kool Shen (real name: Bruno Lopes) became famous in the French-speaking world as part of a rap group called “Suprême NTM,” in which the abbreviation NTM stands for, well, “Fuck Your Mother.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Shen’s NTM colleague JoeyStarr has recently also ventured into acting, with his heart-breaking appearance in 2012 Cannes contender “Polisse” JoeyStarr’s highest-profile role to date. 

Though on the surface, “Abus de faiblesse” it might look like a pretty straightforward story of a swindler and his victim, what happened in real life and in the upcoming film is almost the opposite of what’d you expect (except, if you’re familiar with Breillat’s work, perhaps).

“Abus de faiblesse” isn’t a simple crime story at all but an exploration of how a punishable offence installed itself almost naturally in the relationship between an able-bodied and smooth-talking swindler and an intellectual whose body was severely weakened by a stroke and required looking after pretty much constantly.

“When this happened to me in real life, I didn’t really know what was happening but I did know that it felt like something that could’ve happened in a movie. It felt like a very cinematic moment,” says Breillat, reflecting on the true events that inspired the film. “You don’t really know it’s happening to you but, as a cineaste, I knew I was a movie scene and I was right in the middle of it, writing what was happening as it was happening. That might suggest I understood what was happening but even though I was the author I was in denial. It was and it wasn’t me at the same time, you know? But I knew these scenes were extraordinarily cinematic.”

The scene shot on the day of my visit took place in Maude’s improvised bedroom, after she’s had to sell her own loft. For authenticity, Breillat, who’s extremely involved in the art direction of her films, simply had a container of her own things shipped to Belgium to decorate the set. 

“The true story angle and the attention to detail are so impressive, does it sometimes feel like you’re almost making a documentary?” I ask star Isabelle Huppert a little later, in her dressing room between two scenes. She sits cross-legged on an antique wooden bed with only a flimsy dressing gown on, nibbling on some grapes.

She tosses her flaming red hair back before answering: “Even though the story is autobiographical, it’s still fiction. The idea behind cinema is to take something from reality and transform it. So this film and this character I play is just as imaginary as any other I’ve done. I’ve got no idea what the final result will be. It’s true that the distance between the person I play and the person who’s directing me is smaller than I’ve ever experienced but that doesn’t mean there’s no distance. It’s true that’s it is an unusual situation; I’ve played real-life characters before but they lived in other times and wore different clothes but here, she’s right there, next to the monitor.”

“Maybe Catherine feels a little more pressure than usual but I don’t,” she continues. “My character’s called Maude, not Catherine, so that’s something that already creates some distance but Catherine does have a tendency to insist on certain details because she knows that things really happened in this or that particular way.”

On the use of Catherine’s own possessions as props: “It helps anchors the story in a defined reality. The story is really about a healthy body that’s abusing a weaker, damaged body. This is the most important and visible aspect from the beginning. Maude even has a facial distortion at the start but Catherine and I decided that it would be best just to show that for a short while, otherwise it overwhelms the real story. It’s like a brushstroke or a quick, almost poetic corporal suggestion. But all this work on the body hasn’t been too intellectualized, it’s something that I’ve absorbed by just being close to her and by simply observing her.”

In terms of production, “Abus de faiblesse” is a medium-sized European coproduction involving partners from Belgium and France. “It’s a pretty normal-sized production,” says Huppert, who’s no stranger to European co-productions. “We’ve got an eight-week shoot, so it’s not like we’re rushing to get everything done in three weeks.”

Still it doesn’t compare to her experience in the U.S.: “When you’re working on an American film, there’s always something inflationary about the scale of the production, even if we’re talking about American indies. I have a small role opposite Jessica Chastain in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” and that was still a pretty big machine. Especially when you compare it to something like “In Another Country,” from Hong Sang-Soo, which was a tiny, microscopic production shot in just a few days and with a tiny crew. There you realize you don’t necessarily need all that many people to make a movie.”

The conversation between Maude and Kool Shen’s character, called Vilko in the film, gets pretty heated on set, though the scene filmed today also suggests that Breillat’s hunch about the rapper’s acting talent was probably a good one, as he seems to become a different character as soon as Breillat says (not shouts) “action!”

“It was weird seeing this scene today because it was exactly as it happened, even if Kool-Shen isn’t exactly the same, physically, as Rocancourt, who was more of a gigolo type and Kool-Shen, who’s a rapper, is less elegant, more square. But even so, it is as it was,” says the director.

Huppert concurs: It’s his first film but Bruno’s great. There’s really nothing to say. He knows what to do. He’s a singer, or a rapper to be precise, so he’s got no trouble with the rhythm of the dialogues. Whether I work with newcomers or very experienced actors, it doesn’t really matter as long as they’re good, which the actors are on this film.”

When pressed to describe the complex relationship between Maude and Vilko, Huppert says that “everything that transpires between the characters is very gentle, which is why Maude doesn’t really realize she’s being conned. He might be a bit vulgar with her, a bit harsh but generally he’s charming, he looks after her, he helps her walk. You hardly notice he’s manipulating her. He’s not a perverse or coarse person. And he doesn’t force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, really. He just knows how to talk and she follows him. There’s never anger or tension between them.”

Before the actress goes back in front of the cameras, I ask her if she thinks Breillat tries to give audiences the direct, as-it-happened version of the story or whether she’s painted a picture of events with the benefit of hindsight and whether she has a handle on the emotions of the director as she’s forced to confront her own painful history on a daily basis. “I don’t talk with Catherine about what she’s going through and thinking or feeling emotionally while we’re shooting her story,” Huppert says resolutely after pausing for a second to think things over and stare at me with a frown that suggests this is a question she hadn’t previously given much thought. “I don’t really need that kind of information for the moment, so I don’t really realize what she’s going through, no. I think she’s very happy to be making this film, I think I can see that. But she has little compassion for herself; what she’s given my character as well is a sense of humor about herself, Maude’s someone who can laugh about herself. We’re perhaps not sure what those smiles and that laughter are hiding but at least she’s smiling.”

As my set visit comes to an end, Breillat feels the need to add something she thinks is important but we haven’t really touched upon, though her star actress has, very perceptively, suggested as much: “Perversely, what’s interesting is that an abuse of weakness is, in a way, absolutely delightful while you are experiencing it. It’s just that the final result is a real nightmare.”

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