Abuse of Weakeness – Catherine Breillat and the solitary female creative. (SFF Film Review)

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Abuse of Weakness is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival.

You can grab your tickets here.

Abuse of Weakness opens with pure, crisp white bed sheets, the movement of a body beneath them. the camera pans up on Isabelle Huppert as she is waking from her sleep. Her left arm reaches for her right, and she starts to grasp at it with some urgency. Moving her hand up and over the flesh as if she can’t feel anything. A horrifying panic arrives in her eyes and she rings the hospital calling for an emergency. “I’m half dead” she said to the woman on the phone when she realises she can’t feel one side of her body. “You wouldn’t be able to speak if you were dead.” The woman in emergency states. They begin to argue – its very funny, but its that scary Breillat comedy that barely masks pain. Soon Maud (Huppert) is in hospital, her family called to the bedside and informed that she has suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and that she has had a stoke and will need to rehabilitated. The camera then watches several minutes of excruciating agony as Maud wakes up, begins and endures her rehabilitation.

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This is then the start of a typically incredible performance by Isabelle Huppert who plays Maud, a filmmaker ( Breillat herself, as this is based on a true story from her life) suffering a stroke, and enduring the inner battles of assimilation of a severely deteriorated body into a creative life. Similar to another film at the Sydney Film festival this year of a true story about an artists return from the debilitating aftermath of a stroke, The Possibilities are Endless, Breillat’s story (her stroke was just twelve months before Edwyn Collins’) sees her return to film making with almost no damage done to her creative abilities, rather her capacity to form a lucid relationship with the world is severely diminished. However, a staggering difference between the Edwyn Collins story and the Catherine Breillat story, is that Collins’ had a devoted wife to help him physically, administer to his rehabilitation and perform all the necessary duties to have him engage completely with his music again. Strikingly, Breillat had no such support, as her children are all busy with their own lives and her colleagues (who she refers to with great affection) are all kept strictly to work boundaries. The films are nothing alike, but seen together at this years film festival, the cost of creativity for women comes horrifyingly to the fore. Collins’ creative life hangs on the adoring support of his manager wife, while Breillat has had to keep herself separate in order to fulfill her creative dreams, so as not to be absorbed into the “life” of another. Collins’ has a ready made support network, not of his own creation but assumed out of a relationship he commands simply because he is married. Breillat’s creativity depends on her being alone and that includes the risk she takes in getting sick. This then means at her most fearful and her most vulnerable, Breillat is also supposed to be at her strongest physically and mentally.

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It is in this mental state, she gets back to work as fast as she can, wanting to make a film. Into her life steps Vilko (Kool Shen, iconic French musician and graffiti artist) a man she saw on television just released from a twelve year jail sentence for conning wealthy people out of their money. Maud thinks he will be perfect for her new film, and so she invites him to be the leading man. Vilko agrees, and thus begins a toxic relationship that hovers around Breillat’s favourite subject, the masochistic relationship between men and women. At first, it is Maud’s fearsome independence Vilko admires and wants to dominate, but as he steps in as physical career for Maud, he gradually turns this need to financial matters. Eventually he will embezzle almost a million euro out of Maud, as she suffers more physical setbacks, and her children talk to her about spending time in a home with full time nursing care. Against the very real presence of her illness is Vilko’s flirtatiousness, his constantly refused attempts to get her into bed and his emotional neediness. With what appears to be a cool lucidity, Maud keeps handing over money, though what the two are really bargaining for is power over Maud.

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Isabelle Huppert puts in a deeply disturbing portrait of Maud, a woman who is and is not Catherine Breillat. Her first meeting with Vilko, she small, thin and frail looking, he dark, brooding and large, takes place in her home with Huppert almost disappearing into a large white couch as Shen is planted on top of a black leather one, absorbing it and everything around him. His initial arrogance is easily transparent, what is less so are his forthcoming vulnerabilities that strangely chip away at Maud’s very frail defenses. In Abuse of Weakness, it is all about the physical, from Maud’s size, through Huppert’s performance, to the unconsummated tension that drives the unfulfilled nature of Maude and Vilkjo’s relationship. As with all Breillat’s films, the striking inequities between men and women are brought to the fore in the subtexts – here the accusations hurled at Maud when her money is gone would never be thrown at a father who married a younger woman and allowed her to take his money, they would be aimed at the female in that scenario also. As we see time and time again, Maud is alone, and she is never allowed to be anything other than alone if she intends to pursue the selfish world of creativity. Through Huppert, we see the female artist, small, frail, defensive and under constant attack from which she is never to release her guard.

Abuse of Weakness is easily one of the best films at this years Sydney Film Festival, begging the question, why wasn’t it included in the main competition?

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