Catherine Breillat’s latest, very personal film tells the story of a filmmaker, Maud (Isabelle Huppert – remarkable as ever), who suffers from a stroke and who, in her recovery period, starts to work on a new project that will star gangster and seeming millionaire Vilko Piran (Kool Shen, of French rap group NTM, and also remarkable in this film).
However, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Vilko is milking Maud for all that she is worth – taking cheque after cheque from her for variously large sums of money, until Maud gets a visit from the bank and runs the risk of losing all that she has.
The dilemma at the heart of Abuse of Weakness, then, is who is abusing whom. Is Maud willingly being taken for a ride by Vilko, or is he really the heartless character who is prepared to take advantage of an inform stroke victim in order to line his own pockets?
As is perhaps to be expected from Breillat, there is no easy answer to this question, and this is particularly signalled by the way in which Vilko keeps on reappearing in Maud’s life. He could easily have taken Maud’s money and run – but instead seems as tied to her as she becomes to him.
As such, the film becomes an exploration into the seductive nature of power and, of course, the seductive nature of images – for one gets the sense that it is his chance to become a star that keeps Vilko hanging around as much as does any attraction to Maud. And similarly, one senses that Maud falls for an image of Vilko from the outset – spotting him on television for the first time during one sleepless night at home.
It is perhaps also about the way in which social change – the myth that persists in Western/capitalist societies that those who come from nothing can, with supreme will, make ‘something’ of themselves – is in fact a by-word for bourgeoisification. That is, Vilko becomes rich, but he does not become bourgeois, or ‘well mannered’ (from the bourgeois point of view) – and while we as viewers are hoping/expecting Vilko to suddenly develop more of a conscience, he seemingly does not, with Maud seemingly also aware that to expect the leopard to change its spots is futile. Instead, he is like the scorpion on the frog’s back; he’ll sting the frog that takes him across the water. And why? Because he is a scorpion, of course.
Except that Vilko is perhaps not really rich (we don’t know this – but we’d wonder otherwise why he needs to take Maud’s money). And thus he is in fact already bourgeois, in the sense that his wealth is really based upon the (criminal?) exploitation of others – Vilko perhaps exploiting Maud precisely because she feels bad about how her own wealth – and the wealth of those of her kind – is based upon a history of exploitation. This intricate film, then, is a kind of modern day Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, Spain/Mexico, 1961).
What is also of interest about Breillat’s film is the way in which it is about property – the film at times seems a paean to Maud’s amazing apartment and the fact that she perhaps does not want or deserve such a luxurious pad.
And also Abuse of Weakness is about sleeping, and in particular sleeping with – and having sleep being interrupted by – mobile phones. This is a repeated image throughout the film. And while – to the best of our knowledge – Maud and Vilko never have a sexual liaison, one gets the sense that the phone is the fetish that stands in for their desire for one another. It functions, however, as an illusory, unstable bridge between them – perhaps as unstable and as unreliable as any image.
In other words, Breillat suggests how technology seemingly plays a part in humans’ inability to connect – humans instead seeing each other as images and not as people. And outside of our relationship(s) with technology, it seems as though we are otherwise asleep, lost in our own thoughts and dreams.
Abuse of Weakness, then, is perhaps about our abuse of our own weaknesses, especially our propensity to hide from the world (in our beds, in our apartments, behind a mobile phone), and to avoid encounters with that world as much as possible. Indeed, we’d rather shell out all of our money rather than really to engage with that world. Perhaps it is wealth that makes us weak, then, and not a stroke. And Vilko is right to be profligate with his money – for after all, if it is a crutch for the weak, who really needs it?