Unlike most fact-based movies, Abuse Of Weakness doesn’t announce at the outset—or at any other point, for that matter—that it was inspired by actual events. Writer-director Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, Romance, The Last Mistress), who adapted the film from her own roman à clef, seems content to let the story stand on its own two feet, as if it were something that she’d invented from whole cloth rather than experienced. It’s a laudable approach, in theory, but it backfires a bit in this particular instance, because what occurs is so psychologically inexplicable that Breillat’s alter ego comes across as terminally foolish. The movie can ultimately be read as a bizarre sort of anti-confession regarding the choices Breillat made, but it only works on that level if the viewer knows the relevant real-world backstory. Otherwise, it’s just some woman withdrawing her life savings from the bank and lighting the bills on fire for no reason.
So, here’s what happened: In 2004, Breillat had a massive stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body. While recovering, she watched a lot of TV, and saw a talk-show appearance by notorious con man Christophe Rocancourt, during which he bragged about how easily he’d swindled gullible rich folks. His look and manner struck her as perfect for a role in the next movie she planned to direct, and she immediately offered him the part, which he accepted. Slowly but surely, after gaining her trust, Rocancourt persuaded Breillat to loan him large sums of money—not just once, but repeatedly, even though he hadn’t yet repaid previous loans. He ultimately bilked her for about 700,000 Euros (nearly $1 million at the current exchange rate), and wound up being prosecuted for “abuse of weakness,” a French crime that involves deliberately taking advantage of a person’s mental incapacity. This allowed him to be convicted of robbing her even though she voluntarily gave him the money under no specific pretense.
In the film, Breillat places enormous emphasis on her physical disability, implying that her constant need for assistance just moving about had a deleterious effect on her thinking. As a portrait of what it’s like to be suddenly helpless, Abuse Of Weakness is never less than fascinating, largely because the great Isabelle Huppert plays Breillat’s alter ego, Maud Shainberg. Much of Huppert’s performance consists of struggles to do simple things like cross the room—at one point, she has literally fallen and can’t get up, with no choice but to spend hours lying in agony on the floor of her apartment. Less impressive is French rapper Kool Shen as Vilko Piran, the Rocancourt character; while he’s smooth and handsome enough to be seductive, he lacks the chops to make it credible that this guy could talk someone who knows he’s a con man into giving him virtually all of her money. Consequently, Maud, who’s otherwise suffered no apparent cognitive impairment as a result of her stroke, just looks like an idiot for much of the film, which is especially problematic if viewers are unaware that this actually happened to Breillat. Once they are, however, the final scene, in which Maud offers her dumbfounded family an unapologetic non-explanation for her behavior, achieves considerable power. Sometimes, we don’t know why we do things.