Trying to explain the inexplicable, the central character in Catherine Breillat's cool, oblique and fascinating "Abuse of Weakness" says, "It was me, but it wasn't me." She's a film director recuperating from a debilitating stroke, and she's forced to confront a discomfiting truth: Over a period of many months, she has voluntarily handed over all her money and then some to a well-known con man.
One could say something similar of the character Maud: She's Breillat, but she's not. Her story is inspired by the writer-director's dealings with notorious scam artist Christophe Rocancourt after a cerebral hemorrhage left her partly paralyzed. Portrayed with brilliant sangfroid by Isabelle Huppert, Maud is a smart, imperious woman who's reduced to an unaccustomed level of physical dependency.
With clinical dispassion and narrative elegance, Breillat has constructed what she calls "a thriller about denial." Maud and Vilko (rapper Kool Shen, superb in his first major film role) engage in a knife's-edge pas de deux from the moment they meet. After bilking the rich and famous and serving 12 years for it, he's a celebrity-in-the-making and still on the make. Enthralled by his coarseness and lack of repentance, Maud enlists him for her next movie.
The film's motif: Vilko holding the checkbook steady while Maud, her left hand disabled, writes him a check. The figures vary, as do the reasons for the "loans." They're testing each other and themselves, both addicted to the need to be in control — even if that means jumping before being pushed. Theirs is a monster story of sorts, exquisitely told.
"Abuse of Weakness."
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. In French with English subtitles.
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena (Saturday and Sunday matinees only).