Strength and Weakness: France's provocative Catherine Breillat challenges herself with semi-autobiographical drama

Catherine Breillat is best-known for her uncompromising portrayals of the lives of women and girls, and especially for the sexually explicit ways in which their stories unfold. Romance (1999) caused quite a stir, and not because the title was tongue-in-cheek. The young woman’s quest for identity in that movie, which begins after she is rejected by her live-in lover, involves several sadomasochistic sexual encounters. Critics wavered: Self-flagellation or the release from inner bondage? Actually, Romance taught us to speak about female shame, the kind adolescent girls feel when boys suddenly begin staring at their chests. The quest, undertaken by all of Breillat’s heroes, is to rid themselves of that shame.

A decade before Romance, in Breillat’s groundbreaking 36 Fillette (1988), her sullen 14-year-old protagonist takes advantage of a hapless boy to rid herself of her virginity. Over the years, and after the release of Une Vraie Jeune Fille (A Really Young Girl, 1976), which had been banned in some countries, as well as a dozen new movies, the French writer-director has garnered a reputation as an ardent feminist. Breillat bristles at that label and, as for “romance,” she believes it is possible, fleeting though it might be. At the end of The Sleeping Beauty (2011), a delightful re-envisioning of the fairytale, the feckless prince asks: “Do you still love me as you did before?” The princess replies: “Yes, but not as before. Now it’s after.”

Breillat never dwells in the “after.” Her new movie, Abuse of Weakness (from Strand Releasing), opens in theatres this week, and like the rest of her work it ends with the protagonist’s transformation. The film fictionalizes Breillat’s own transfiguring moment, proving again, as she did in Sex is Comedy (2002), another movie about a director, that the artist is as captivating as her art. In 2004, Breillat suffered a stroke, which affected her balance and her speech. During her recovery, and as she was casting her next film (she’s made four since the stroke, including this one), Breillat met Christophe Rocancourt, a notorious con man. She offered him a role, and he accepted it.

In the movie, he is Vilko (Kool Shen), and she is Maud (Isabelle Huppert)—and while their encounters are at first sexually charged, there is no sex. Vilko slowly insinuates himself into Maud’s life after her stroke by driving her to the bootmaker for a pair custom-fitted with velcro so that she can put them on herself, and to his apartment for dinner with his wife and child. Soon, he is borrowing money, and Maud, still struggling through her recovery, seems not to realize how much she is lending him until her checks start getting returned. The denouement, when Maud confronts the disbelief and outrage of her family, is gripping and harsh, and represents some of Breillat’s best writing.

An unforgettable performance by Isabelle Huppert as Maud makes this difficult journey—difficult because Breillat continually deflects any portrayal of victimization—understandable, and grounded not in weakness and co-dependency, but rather in Maud’s desire to work and to be at all costs—in this case, at the risk of a second stroke or her demise. Maud joins Breillat’s other memorable and equally resolute girls and women who live as they wish. The girls, like Lili in 36 Fillette, rid themselves of their shame and their virginity, not as a right of passage as much as a rebellion against silly patriarchal notions of purity. Her adult protagonists grapple with the same impediments to the fulfillment of their feminine identity, but unlike the girls they are enmeshed in long-term relationships, as La Velleni (Roxanne Mesquida) is in The Last Mistress (2007).

Abuse of Weakness is named for Breillat’s abus de faiblesse lawsuit against Rocancourt. (She won, and he is serving a jail term.) She continues her unstinting commitment to making movies about girls and women, who through their ferocity (I think of Anaïs in Fat Girl) and courage (Marie-Catherine in Bluebeard) rewrite the stories of their victimization by men and patriarchy, as Breillat herself does in this film. Her oeuvre represents so significant a contribution to the art form that no interview with her is long enough to do it justice.

In October 2013, after the New York Film Festival’s screening of Abuse of Weakness, she and I spoke for the third time. Breillat was unsteady, and frustrated at her occasional aphasia and my inability to understand her, but she remains the same spirited, intellectually engaging woman I first met in 1999 when she granted interviews for Romance. I asked then about her impressions of the New York press, and her reply surprised me. She said that every journalist she had spoken with asked her why men were so unimportant in her film. Her reply: “This is Marie’s story… She is the center of my film. She is on her quest.” And Catherine Breillat is on hers, having survived the “after.”

Film Journal International: It seems from the movie that you are looking for your own answers, that Abuse of Weakness is an exercise in introspection.

Catherine Breillat: No, it is not introspective. It is not a movie meant to understand, and not to make an existential statement. I don’t want to have a real comprehension. I am an artist. I don’t want to rationalize. I don’t want to understand completely.

I don’t think it is a tabloid story, although in France I was the victim of a crime. My movie is also a manifestation of subjective cinema. I always make a subjective film. You are always aware of a physical reality. It is both metaphysical and transcendent. Maud has the weakness of her strength. If she were less strong, probably she could not be abused for her weakness. Vilko has to help her physically because it is very hard to be an invalid, but in the film, as soon as she becomes an artist, she is not an invalid.

Me, when I wake up in my bed in the morning and look at myself, I am a poor, miserable person. If I stayed like this, I would have to go back to my bed. Sometimes, I cry when I realize the reality of what I am, but in the end I am a realist. My life is an artistic dream. When I was young, I saw myself as Harriet Andersson in Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel. At 12 years old, I decided that I would become a moviemaker and a novelist, although I did not want to be a novelist just to tell stories. Now, I have lost my house and my autonomy and become the victim of abus de faiblesse. Life is not as clear.

FJI: In the scene where you are with your family and you say: “It was me. It was not me.” Can you speak about that?

CB: Maud recognized that in reality, in her true life, she did know what she was doing, but at the same time she does realize what she is doing.

FJI: Maud is in close-up, isn’t she? I thought: How many of her were there? First, there was the person who was a victim of a terrible crime.

CB: Yes, it is terrible. She has no money. When you lose so much money, and at the same time you lose yourself…well, the tears should be because she lost herself.

FJI: The title is a reference to legal language?

CB: Yes, that’s right. In France, it is a crime.

FJI: But what comes from the film is not weakness. There is immense strength of character.

CB: Yes, in my own life, if I speak of myself, I really think that if I was less strong and less able to…my despair is terrible. [cries] I don’t want this story to be about me.

FJI: I am writing a book about identity and I begin with Cocteau’s la Belle et la Bête, and speak about how Beauty must confront the beast in order to become herself.

CB: It is a movie I want to make.

FJI: Yes, when we last spoke, when you made The Sleeping Beauty, you mentioned the trilogy—Bluebeard, The Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast.

CB: Cocteau’s beast is so beautiful that he is a prince. And when he changes, it is a terrible loss, but it is her gaze, the way she sees him, that is important. That will be significant in my movie.

FJI: In almost all of your movies, a woman confronts the beast in some form in order to become herself. When your girl protagonists rid themselves of their virginity, is this the first step to becoming themselves?

CB: No. To lose your virginity, that is just a passage. It’s not the first step. In fact, it can be very humiliating. I don’t want to have the girl’s virginity seen in a moralistic way either, or in a romantic way. It’s like a brutal act of defiance, which is against everyone else, against society. A woman, for instance, could never take her place amongst the knights. Knights have to go through the worst of challenges, the most monstrous of challenges, and they don’t go around them. They go through them. The knight falls into an abyss. Then he wants to confront and challenge something so he can conquer all the dangers. They not only overcome these obstacles, they want to overcome them.

For us to become ourselves, we women have to overcome obstacles, too. It’s impossible to kill the dragon but the hero does. It’s very important to understand that he is not doing it because he is defending himself. He decides to go and confront the dragon. He follows him, ambushes him and kills him. It’s a drive to do that. I am not speaking about interior dragons. They exist. In Bluebeard, for instance, for the girl, the fear of becoming is a delicious pleasure. She knows that his reputation is that he killed all his wives, one after the other, yet she chooses to marry him.

FJI: So, is she like the knight?

CB: She thinks she is different from the other wives. And, yes, she is like the knight. To know and to love…she always clings to the fear. Even though we all know the exact point and the exact place where we are going to relive that fear, it is still fear.

FJI: How do we know?

CB: She knows she will become herself, and she anticipates the moment.

FJI: You mean she knew and planned for that moment?

CB: Yes, we see it in the film. She knows it will be at Bluebeard’s hand, and she plans what to do when it happens.

(Special thanks to translator Dominique Borel.)