“IT’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, but it’s not a biopic,” Catherine Breillat, a writer-director who has frequently mined the first person, clarified over a spotty Skype connection during the press conference for Abuse of Weakness, her fifth feature to play at the New York Film Festival. A recounting of Breillat’s involvement with notorious con man Christophe Rocancourt following her stroke in 2004, Abuse of Weakness stars Isabelle Huppert (in her first collaboration with the director) as Maud, a filmmaker so willful that not even a brain hemorrhage will deter her from continuing her next project. Watching late-night TV, she comes across Vilko (French rapper Kool Shen), a high-profile swindler boasting of his exploits on a chat show. Transfixed, she is determined to cast him as the male lead in a tale of murderous amour fou. (The plot that Maud describes to Vilko is that of Bad Love, Breillat’s since-abandoned film that was to star Naomi Campbell opposite Rocancourt; the only reference to the supermodel is this arch line by Maud’s assistant: “Your leading lady won’t be easy, either.”)
What follows is a series of psychic seductions, the cocky, lupine flimflammer turned on by Maud’s indomitability (“You’ve got balls like a guy”), the physically debilitated, haughty auteur secretly delighting in the dutiful, if bullying, attention shown by her new star, who calls her incessantly. This folie à deux manifests itself in Vilko asking Maud for money for loans or ludicrous business schemes; she uncaps her pen after every single demand, writing, over the course of several months, sixteen checks to the criminal totaling 650,000 euros.
“It’s fascinating to observe yourself,” Breillat said at the press conference, echoing the out-of-body experience Maud describes to her family members, aghast at her horrible lack of judgment, in Abuse’s penetrating final scene. “It was me, but it wasn’t me,” she says of the divided self that allowed enormous funds to be drained. “I knew I had to stop, but I didn’t care. I must have done it, since I did it.” Simultaneously an unsparing recapitulation of her bad choices—her bad love—and a disavowal of them, Abuse of Weakness is not a tale of victimization but of Breillat score-settling with herself.
Claire Denis’s Bastards might be thought of as a scabrous examination of the abuse of both weakness and power. Inspired by William Faulkner’s 1931 novel, Sanctuary, and the Sadean sex parties attended by Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other French operators, Denis’s latest—her first to be shot on digital video by her frequent cinematographer Agnès Godard—centers on a tenuous revenge plot. Sea captain Marco (Vincent Lindon) reluctantly returns to Paris to assist his disgraced sister, Sandra (Julie Bataille): Her husband has just committed suicide, and her daughter, Justine—a nod to de Sade’s heroine?—played by Lola Créton, is recovering in a clinic for participation in carnal acts so extreme that an operation may be required “to repair her vagina.” Marco is convinced that Edouard LaPorte (Michel Subor), a DSK-like figure, is linked with both tragedies, though he soon discovers his sibling’s complicity in acts of unspeakable depravity. (Corn cobs and sex barns are involved.) If Bastards too often goes structurally awry with its actors’ fits of histrionics, it nonetheless leaves a scalding imprint for its unorthodox castigations. As the always pithy Denis herself explained after Bastards screened for the press, “I don’t want a film to give [women] only pity. I prefer to be fierce.”