It Was Me
Ela Bittencourt Revisits Abuse of Weakness
When I reread my review from 2013 for Slant of Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness, an unnerving drama starring Isabelle Huppert as Maud, a middle-aged filmmaker who suffers a stroke, I experience a case of perspectival vertigo. There is a psychological depth to Breillat’s story that I can only recognize now. I am intrigued most by what is glaringly lacking in my original interpretation, however persuasively written. For while I express my admiration for Breillat’s body of work, I go oddly cool on her heroine. I give Huppert her due, but also deem her character dispiritingly opaque. I write, “Huppert delivers a stunning performance, though her charged charisma is such that we’re at times precluded from grasping Maud’s more prosaic emotional hang-ups, left to coolly marvel at her, as if she weren’t our kin but some rare and marvelous species.”
Given my detached tone of old, I’m surprised how pierced, in fact gutted, I come to feel more than a decade later when confronted with the same character, same story. I still find much about Maud contradictory, hard to read, but connect to her now more profoundly than I could have imagined. The film’s opening silent tableau shows her lying in a hospital bed shortly after the stroke. As the camera closes in on her misshapen arm, resting against white sheets, she looks like a wounded bird with clipped wings. The scene radiates the loneliness and fragility in the aftermath of illness so poignantly that Breillat returns to different variations of the bed scene in key moments, changing settings, slightly modulating the mood. At times, she shows Maud perfectly still and bewildered; other times, as she regains limited motion in her hand, pulling up the covers to her chin or covering herself entirely, like a fearful animal burrowed in its lair. Despite her fear, Maud is tough and imposing. Determined not to let her feebleness impede her career, she impulsively decides to cast a notorious criminal, Vilko (Kool Shen), in a leading role in her next film after seeing him on a television show. Their relationship, begun as an unconventional screen test at Maud’s apartment, due to her limited mobility, evolves into a parasitic co-dependence. Maud is so mysteriously taken with Vilko’s rugged braggadocio that she writes him a series of checks without much questioning. What starts out as a small loan bloats to an exorbitant sum, as she underwrites Vilko’s dubious business schemes and supposedly saves him from the mafia’s clutches. Vilko buys luxurious goods for himself and his wife, as Maud sinks into debt so staggering that she risks losing her house. Finally she must be rescued by her uncomprehending family.
Today I’m surprised by how hard I looked for Maud’s motivations in my review, as if I needed to fit her to a psychological type. As a film critic, I’ve always had a weak spot for the ineffable and the bizarre. And yet, if Maud perplexed me, it’s because I failed to consider how raw and unnervingly literal Breillat was in her depiction, not just of the psychological conditions at play—for instance, the fact that Maud takes her fragility and aging particularly hard as a woman, and gender plays into the dominant-submissive dynamic that she establishes with Vilko—but also of the most rudimentary aspects of Maud’s ordeal, both biological and chemical. I took so much of Maud’s behavior metaphorically that I overlooked this earthier reality.
Breillat doesn’t wish to be reductive. She withholds until the last scene the information that Maud’s medication, Rivotril, branded “a rape drug,” caused mental fog and memory loss. But as I again follow Maud’s devastating descent into degradation and despair, I can’t help but conclude that the most poignant aspect of Abuse of Weakness liesin Breillat’s resolute collapsing of the line between chemistry and psychology. Identity emerges in the film as a wishful fantasy, the essence of existence as our falling prey to mutable chemistry. Regardless of age or experience, we may then all one day become a mystery to others and ourselves.
I’m not entirely surprised that I once found Maud’s actions grotesque. As she goes from living well to spartanly, from financially secure to unable to pay for her daughter’s lunch or to feed herself, the starkness of her situation—ever more alarming as she keeps indulging her own whims, though primarily Vilko’s—verges on pathological. Worse still, there is no critical point at which Vilko and his cronies’ duplicity becomes as transparent to Maud as it does to the film’s viewers. Even when she finally acknowledges that Vilko lives extravagantly while claiming penury, she still finds it inconceivable that he uses her. Rewatching the film, I am startled, however, by how terrifying it all is, if you take it as both surreal and plausible. Maud is so certain of herself that she lacks the self-awareness she needs to survive. Her detachment, imperial manner, and sarcastic flair stoke her arrogance. When, for instance, Vilko complains that she uses her weakness to “turn men into slaves,” her blasé answer is, “It’s one benefit of being a cripple.” Yet she is also clearly falling through the cracks of awareness, slipping from cognition to brain fog. In such instances, her dry humor, prodigious intellect, and creativity abandon her.
So many details in the film’s final scene, in which Maud’s flabbergasted family members question her before offering to bail her out, induce in me a whiplash of recognition. Not least: although Maud’s daughter is present, only her son and male relatives interrogate her. The chilling effect of this unequal dynamic reminds me of another of Huppert’s distinct roles, as a discarded housewife in Joachim Lafosse’s Private Property. There, too, the muteness with which the central character endures her fate and is condescended to ties to gender. In Abuse of Weakness, the visibly shaken Maud can hardly answer. She repeatedly stresses that she was herself but wasn’t. Her final words are, “I must have done it, since I did,” a logical ellipsis that says everything about her inability to untie her mind’s furious knots. In the last frame, Breillat leaves behind the film’s austere, naturalistic style established by Alain Marcoen, best known as the Dardennes’ cinematographer. Huppert looks into the camera, breaking the fourth wall.
The excruciating moment reminds me that when I first watched Abuse of Weakness, I too was in thrall to an illness I couldn’t fathom, and which made me not myself. A decade before I received a diagnosis, or was prescribed medication, I’d suffered from frequent brain fog, extreme exhaustion, bodily pain, and depression. To this day, I have a sense that the lasting lapses in my memory are due to the ramifications of my chronic illness. It wasn’t until I was told my exact immunological illness that I could piece together the numerous devastating symptoms that had haunted me for years. The onset of Maud’s case and its physical manifestations are more dramatic, but if anything, my experience has taught me what it means to feel utterly at the mercy of your body’s chemical processes, whether they be natural or drug-induced. Now, one scene in the film resonates with me the most. When Maud goes out for a walk with a dear friend, whom she avoided as her torment with Vilko went from bad to abysmal, she looks down at the waves violently hitting the craggy rocks below. In retrospect, I am stunned by the economy with which a single frame can so completely convey the loss of a desire to live, born out of apathy and agony.
Maud is not a sum total of her symptoms; neither am I. Similarly to how I experience chronic illness and a continuum of recovery, Breillat’s figure is neither reducible to her particular lapses nor to her slippery breakthroughs, those moments when she appears on the verge of self-knowing. By lending her script rich nuance, fleshing out characters with conflicting impulses and oscillating power struggles, Breillat has resisted producing a morality tale that would render Maud narrowly, as a victim, or dressing up Vilko as an unremorseful villain. Instead, in his cruelty, Vilko becomes a mirror to Maud’s foibles, all the more devastating since she is unknowingly being held hostage to chemical imbalances. Breillat lends the opacity and vulnerability of the human mind, and its chemical mapping, a physical form, showing how biology works in pervasive—and perverse—ways. In the moment of weakness, the resolute Maud does not seem to know how to call for help. I now see the film’s essence, therefore, not so much in its lucid exposition of who or how Maud was or is, or the neurological causality behind it, but instead in its ruthless depiction of the uncanny isolation one experiences while ill. It’s how I see myself in her.