Brief impression: “Abuse of Weakness”

August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

If there are a handful of cinematic devices used by filmmakers in the hopes of appealing to the arthouse establishment, a top five list of these would probably include: elliptical storytelling, long/extended takes, banal dialogue, narrative and thematic repetition, and hyper-naturalistic performances; of course, there are probably a handful more that are equally overused. Catherine Breillat has already established herself as one of the key voices of current French cinema, whether as undisputed queen of the so-called New French Extremity or otherwise, so it is hard to argue that her most recent film is an attempt to be ‘arthouse’ by way of somewhat rote application of the above devices, hyper-naturalistic performances aside. Why then does this (or did this initially) seem to be the case, at least in this individual’s eyes?

‘Abuse of Weakness’ is Breillat’s adaptation of her own autobiographical 2009 book of the same name, one which documents her relationship with international conman Cristophe “phony Rockefeller” Rocancourt following a debilitating stroke she suffered in 2004. Initially attracted to his dangerous charisma which she intended on translating to an on-screen performance by casting him in a film project based around the man himself, Breillat – renamed Maud Schoenberg in this film and embodied by the always dependable Isabelle Huppert – found herself writing Rocancourt a string of cheques amounting to nearly €700 000. Breillat blamed her irresponsible cheque-writing and her susceptibility to Rocancourt’s scamming skills on impaired mentation following her stroke, which – to be fair – is not the most implausible claim, an approach which successfully flew in court and subsequently landed the conman in prison.

Now, there isn’t much point in wondering why Breillat decided to convert her book into a film seeing as she was a novelist before she was a filmmaker and has up to this point based four of her films on her own literary works, including her cinematic debut. This being said, is the film intended to be a means by which the subtle or not-so-subtle gender dynamics and perhaps sexuality which may have underpinned and driven Breillat and Raconcourt’s relationship is teased apart and analysed? Because, if so, ‘Abuse of Weakness’ may not be particularly successful. In fact, the film’s achievement may be to further validate Breillat’s assertions of mental incapacity by providing barely any perceptible reasons why Breillat/Schoenberg is putty in the slimy hands of her conman muse. While the film’s version of Raconcourt, named Vilko Piran and played with some level of gusto by Kool Shen, may possess an appreciable brutish allure, this is undercut by the placement of frankly dull, almost embarrassing dialogue in his mouth. The frequent jibes and lame insults Piran lays on Schoenberg, to which the half-crippled filmmaker responds with Huppert’s signature smug smirk, seem to portray the conman as being a lot less extraordinary than €700 000 in swindled loans would suggest. As the film progresses, it would not be surprising if a viewer were almost squinting, trying to see in Piran what it is that Schoenberg sees in him, and in failing to do so, turning the squint on Schoenberg in hope of glimpsing the obvious deficiencies in her that Piran is exploiting. Unfortunately, Scheonberg – as played by Huppert – come across as being more brash, carefree and stubborn than gullible and temporarily dim, and as the film reaches its conclusion in a scene which is a lot more emotionally commanding than it perhaps has any right to be, the possibility that Breillat is still unable to truly explain exactly what was going on in her head during this fateful period in her life becomes less of a possibility and more of a tentative certainty. Was it a crush or was it love? Was it fear? The French auteur, it seems, has little to say about why exactly she fell victim to “phony Rockefeller’s” tricks (apart from the post-stroke-deficit angle). I’d say she has even less to say about Rocancourt and the effect he must have had on his other victims, probably because the key question is not about the exploitation itself but that which was exploited.

Given a handful of weeks to stew over this film, its effectiveness has risen in my estimation, almost improbably. Breillat’s use of the banal, the elliptical and repetitive now appears to be less of a cheap attempt at satisfying the arthouse mode. They truly do seem to highlight the often elusive nature of weakness, the kind that one person has for another.

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