French filmmaker Catherine Breillat knows all kinds of ways to get under people’s skin: In her 2004 Anatomy of Hell, a male character drinks deeply from a glass of “tea” made from a used tampon; the 2001 Fat Girl features a shock-ya moment that made me leap out of my seat and yell “JESUS CHRIST!” In the middle of a rather decorous New York Film Festival screening, no less.
But the opening sequence of Breillat’s latest picture, Abuse of Weakness–which plays the New York Film Festival on October 6 and 9–is more quietly terrifying than anything she’s ever done, maybe partly because of the autobiographical vapor hovering around it. A woman, played by Isabelle Huppert, wakes up one morning and attempts to stand, only to fall to the floor–she lies there for a moment, dumbstruck, her limbs a useless tangle. Somehow, minutes or millennia later, she claws her way to the phone and rings the hospital. “Half of my body is dead,” she tells the dispatcher, who proceeds to argue with her. She can’t be half-dead if she’s capable of using the phone.
It’s so like Breillat, the trickster seductress, to cap a moment of pure, hushed horror with a bitter joke. Like all of Breillat’s movies, Abuse of Weakness is perversely funny, and it’s a good thing she can laugh: Breillat herself suffered a stroke in 2004, followed by a long recovery that temporarily derailed her filmmaking career. But Abuse of Weakness isn’t a movie about illness, or bravery in the face of adversity, or anything dreadful like that. It’s a story of intrigue and betrayal, though that angle, too, is an echo of Breillat’s own life: After her stroke, the filmmaker became friendly with a con artist named Christophe Rocancourt, who ended up bilking her of her life savings, nearly 700,000 euros.
In Abuse of Weakness, Breillat’s fictional alter ego, Maud (Huppert), is also a filmmaker. And post-stroke she, too, becomes enthralled by a con man, a hunky thug named Vilko (played by French rapper Kool Shen). Maud sees Vilko on television one night, bragging about his crimes; she decides she must have him for her next film. He swaggers into her comfortably appointed home, bragging about his autodidacticism and helping himself to some of her books. For reasons that can’t be explained, yet somehow don’t need to be explained, he temporarily takes over her life, like the moon eclipsing the sun.
Abuse of Weakness is brilliant, maddening, unlikeable; it’s also among Breillat’s most compelling films, and like all her others, it bumps uglies with all sorts of scary intricacies of sex and power. Maud’s physical state is very delicate: One hand is nearly useless. She walks with great difficulty (albeit in a pair of punky custom-made orthopedic boots), and if she falls, she runs the risk of cracking her delicate bones. Vilko is often tender with Maud, but there’s an air of menace about him, too. “Your big trip is turning men into slaves,” he tells her at one point, cutting her down. “It’s one plus of being a cripple,” Maud shoots back. It’s never certain, not even after the last frame, exactly who the victim is.
One thing’s for sure: The filmmaking is crisp and sparkling, far more assured than anything Breillat has done in years. (Her last two pictures, the 2009 Bluebeard and the 2010 The Sleeping Beauty, the latter made for French TV, were intriguing and beautifully filmed, yet seemed somehow only half-formed.) Huppert’s performance is marvelous, devoid of all her usual actressy brittleness. As Daniel Day Lewis did when he played Christy Brown in My Left Foot, she makes the infirmity disappear: All you see is the person, in all her prickly, captivating glory. And, as always, Breillat is keenly attuned to beauty. In that nightmare opening, after Maud tumbles out of bed, she lies on the floor in an tableau of frozen terror—she’s brought a gilt chair down with her, and we get a few moments to contemplate this jumble of gold furniture and golden-hued human being. Only Breillat could take a moment of unadulterated panic and turn it into something as composed and serene as a Japanese floral arrangement. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or, better yet, make movies.