Friday, December 26, 2014

"Abuse of Weakness": Missing Key Narrative Elements

Now Available on DVD and Netflix

Abuse of Weakness is a film that has received much critical praise for the insight and self-portrayal of French filmmaker Catherine Brelliat.  Brelliat suffered a stroke in 2004, and while recovering, she began work on her next film.  During that process, she met an infamous con artist named Cristophe Rocancourt, and ended up loaning him nearly €700,000 while he supposedly wrote a screenplay about his life that ultimately would never be produced.  Rocancourt was later convicted of abus de fablaisse, which translates to “abuse of weakness,” and is defined as the taking financial advantage of another in a time of mental vulnerability.  This is the backstory that spawned this film’s making, and though fictional, is largely autobiographical of Brelliat’s experiences with Rocancourt.  However, despite how cathartic and empowering I’m sure making this film was for Brelliat, it is not perfect, and while the elements of a great film are there, critical storytelling missteps prevent the film from achieving such heights.

This is because the film almost entirely relies on its audience knowing that obscure bit of trivia that I explained in the first paragraph, as it completely ignores characterizing the main characters as anything more than representations of their real-world counterparts.  See, the film starts with Maude (Brelliat’s stand-in) suffering her stroke, and then going forward with physical therapy.  We watch her struggle with physical therapy and it quickly becomes established that her new disability is going to require some assistance from friends, family, and hired workers.  Enter Vilko (Rocancourt’s stand-in), whom Brelliat invites into her life with the plan to use him as an actor in her next film.  As the film progresses, we see Vilko gradually manipulate Maude into eventually signing away her entire life’s savings to him, but we never see why Maude decides to go along with it.

I can think of any number of reasons why a person would become the subject of financial abuse: loneliness, dependence, attraction.  However, this film never firmly establishes what Maude’s actual vulnerability is.  Sure, we see her struggle physically in the aftermath of her stroke, but we never see any other evidence of loss in her mental faculties.  To an outside observer, Maude is simply making irrational decisions without any sort of explained reason.  If the film had bothered to emphasize the relatable reasons for Maude’s vulnerability, it would be easier to empathize with her as a victim.  Even an inner-monologue narration would have been enough to sustain the film’s lack of insight into its main character.

This is what I mean when I say that knowledge of the director’s story is necessary when viewing this film; and yet, paradoxically, if you already know that story, there’s no reason to watch the film, because the film doesn’t provide any new insights that Brelliat’s Wikipedia article couldn’t provide.  I suppose the performances by leads Isabelle Huppert and Kool Shen should be applauded for their subtlety, but they were perhaps so subtle that the film’s point got lost in the realism.  This seems to me the result of an artist being so closely intertwined with their work as to be blind to its biggest flaws, and ultimately leaves the piece feeling unfinished due to that oversight.  Abuse of Weakness is probably one to skip.

French films.  Do you think perhaps something was lost in translation here?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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