Abuse of Weakness is a cold but strikingly different study on the pangs of loneliness. It is clinical in approach, treating its subject with critical distance before closing in on her with tight focus. Catherine Breillat is particular about how she presents her subjects, tip-toeing the line between victim and antagonist. Breillat is also careful about conveying how much free-will a character has on their personal trajectory, never forgetting that control is relative and not something that can be relinquished without consequence. In Abuse of Weakness, a stroke-addled woman is left to her own devices, physically handicapped as a result. Yet her cognitive abilities would appear to remain intact. What follows is a moral puzzle that questions where the lines are drawn between victim and self-aware participant.
Maud (Isabelle Huppert) is a film director who, on an ordinary morning, suffers from a brain hemorrhage. The initial passages of the film emphasize the clinical approach to her rehabilitation. She’s essentially alone during these periods, slowly attempting to regain her faculties. Breillat highlights the physically dilapidating affects of her hemorrhage, as Maud’s hand hangs limply in a fist. Breillat closes in on the image of Maud’s hand as her other hand lifts each finger, one by one, only for her limp hand to return to its now default fist status. It’s an image that’s reflective of Maud’s newfound physical state, whereby the process of mobility demand a new, more taxing, procedure. The potent imagery is only reinforced by Huppert’s physically demanding performance. To say she’s convincing would be an understatement, as Huppert embodies the role and all of the physical demands associated with it.
Maud’s recovery comes at a time where she is renovating her home and taking on a new project. Following some channel surfing, she encounters the charismatic Vilko (Kool Chen) who shares his story about his recent incarceration for conning people out of their money. Interested in his screen presence and story, Maud decides to cast him in a role for her new film. But their interactions grow increasingly frequent and intimate until it becomes clear that the two have developed dependence for one another.
From there, the film enters a dialogue on the nature of transactions. Is one subservient to the other? Maud’s handicap may suggest that she is victimized by Vilko’s perpetual requests for money. But is she not an active participant by relying on Vilko? Vilko is constantly servicing Maud, never one to shrug off her requests and perpetually a source of conversation. In her world, where her familial interactions are infrequent and her own body has betrayed her, Vilko symbolizes a constant - he will call her every morning, he will be there to see her, and he’s not one to treat her as if she is handicapped.
Yet Vilko does use her for money. The once opulent woman is left without a cent and in the film’s cold conclusion, Maud is left to defend her actions to her family. Breillat is not one to offer a clear conclusion, though she comes reasonably close when tightening her focus on Maud as she utters “It was me, and it wasn’t me”. Aware of the social contract she engaged in, Maud’s action were indeed the result of an abuse of weakness, with that weakness, to be more specific, being her loneliness. That sentiment strikes me as resoundingly clear as Huppert’s consternated face responds to the glares of her fitful children - the steely gaze of a woman who had lost everything well before she was conned out of her money.