Material Desires: A Conversation with Catherine Breillat

In late-2004, Catherine Breillat suffered a debilitating stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body and precipitated a five-month hospital stay. After learning to walk again, she soon returned to work, finalizing pre-production on The Last Mistress (2007). Her next project was to have been an adaption of her novel, Bad Love, starring Naomi Campbell and Christophe Rocancourt, a notorious criminal who, by the time Breillat met him, had already served five years in an American prison for defrauding his victims out of millions of dollars.

In a 2008 interview, Breillat said of Rocancourt: "He is so intelligent, so sincere, so arrogant. You have to be arrogant to achieve anything in this life. When I first saw him, I knew he would be perfect for my film." Breillat was, in fact, under the spell of Rocancourt at the time of that interview. Borrowing small sums at first, he would eventually swindle her out of nearly 700,000 euros, a harrowing ordeal that Breillat first described at length in her book, Abus de faiblesse, and now explores again in a film of the same name.

I spoke with Breillat at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Abuse of Weakness had its world premiere. The film opens with a remarkable, high-angle shot of rumpled bedsheets before panning up to Maud Schoenberg (Isabelle Huppert), who wakes suddenly and grabs her arm.

NOTEBOOK: It’s been nearly a decade since your stroke, and you’ve already written a book about your troubles with Rocancourt. In other words, you’ve had a great deal of time to think about how to depict these experiences on screen. Did you always know you would open the film with the stroke? And did you consider other ways to visualize it?

CATHERINE BREILLAT: When I first wrote the script I imagined something more complicated with curtains—muslin curtains in the wind, with the titles over them. Later, suddenly, I thought of the sheet. I bought a very, very good quality sheet because you cannot find that kind of texture in simple cotton. It was strange. When we shot the scene I became worried and said to Isabelle, “Oh, no! The sheets are not laying right!” They had to have some relief, like a sort of mountain, covered in snow. And, in fact, viewers often don’t know what they are looking at.

NOTEBOOK: It’s disorienting, for sure, and then when we see the stroke, terrifying. By opening the film with the stroke, we never know the Maud “before,” which makes her motivations and relationships a bit of a mystery. So much of the film is about trying to understand why she is susceptible to Vilko’s con. [Vilko Piran, the film’s Rocancourt, is played by French rapper Kool Shen.]

BREILLAT: Because he is her actor! In Sex is Comedy (2002) you see this relationship—how actors become the material of the film. Also, in my case, I was closed up in my house. Isolated. I could not go outside. And he was the person who came, who was always there, who took me by the arm and helped me go outside.

When I was preparing the movie and found the location [Maud’s home], I fell apart. Wept. Because, in fact, I was very happy in the hospital. I accepted it. I’m very stoic! I was in bed, paralyzed. I made no distinction between me before and me like that. It’s me. I didn’t want to live some other life in my mind, so I accepted it.

In the hospital, I had things to learn. Rehabilitation is mental rather than physical. It requires great mental concentration because you’re working those neurons that are not dead. It all felt familiar to me from directing films, which also requires great concentration.

But, at the same time, I also developed a kind of relationship I’d never experienced before: the therapist who helped me to walk was like a god to me. And with Vilko, in fact, it was the same. It began here, the story, because the therapist not only helped me take a first step, physically. It was like a psychological transfer. And the same with Vilko.

NOTEBOOK: I love the scene when Vilko first enters Maud’s home. She’s seated on a couch, watching him like she’s his private audience. There’s a slight smile on her face and she looks delighted by it all. Kool Shen is such an irresistible screen presence. He walks in, surveys the room, leaps effortlessly onto a bookshelf...

BREILLAT: [smiles] Yes, yes.

NOTEBOOK: It’s an incredibly seductive performance, which I assume is why you were drawn to him?

BREILLAT: That’s also why I chose a rapper for this character. He’s not just seductive. It’s a violent seduction. Tres physique! In my own story, Rocancourt had the same sort of movement and manner. Not beauty but something else. It’s like he’s already taking the power.

She’s a filmmaker, and she’s looking at him as the material for a future movie, so she is in the dominant position. She’s sitting there, looking at him, not asking him if he wants something to drink. He’s not a person, just a character in her movie. But he takes the power. He has an animal presence.

NOTEBOOK: A friend who hasn’t seen Abuse of Weakness yet asked me what I thought of it, and I told him that the narrative is relatively simple. There’s an inevitability to Maud’s crisis, especially for viewers who already know about your personal experience. But I also told him that getting to watch Kool Shen and Isabelle Huppert in the same room together—that is what makes it a Breillat film!

BREILLAT: [smiles] Yes.

NOTEBOOK: I interviewed Claire Denis a few years ago, soon after she’d finished working with Huppert for the first time.

BREILLAT: White Material?

NOTEBOOK: Exactly. I think of Huppert as being an auteur herself, so I asked Denis what it’s like to work with a lead actress who can command a film. She quickly dismissed the notion that Huppert is commanding. “That would be too easy. She creates a need for her, when she’s an addiction.... It’s much more seducing the way she does it.”

BREILLAT: [laughs] For me it was the contrary. I’m like Vilko. I take the power! With Isabelle, the first four days were a fight, a war. I didn’t want her to be in control, and Isabelle is always in control. She wanted to see replays of her performance, so she walked over to the camera and the assistant obeyed her—showed her the monitor. I saw that happen and shouted, “That is mine! [Breillat pounds her fist on the table.] That is my image, not hers!” She’s the actress. She has a job to do. But me, I am the film. It was a big fight. [smiles]

“This belongs to me,” I said. “It will be different from your other movies.” After three or four days, she began to see the layers in the film. It’s not just sadness. Not just anguish. There are light sides and comedic scenes. Even Isabelle didn’t understand that would happen in the movie. After that we became very close, we laughed together, we are now like twins.

NOTEBOOK: You said Huppert was surprised to discover the comedy. Is that part of what interested you in telling this story?

BREILLAT: Always. In all of my films there is comedy. The journalists and critics who don’t like me think I have no sense of humor. [Laughs] But I always balance my films with light scenes, funny scenes. Always.

Also, I have to say, for Isabelle’s sake, the character is called Maud. It’s not me. It’s Maud, so Isabelle can play the part, the personage. Yes, she is my twin in some way, but on the set she is Isabelle Huppert, acting and finding a character. It’s not a biopic. It’s a fiction. Fiction is what appeals to me.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve always been interested in “obscene” subjects, especially female sexuality. Abuse of Weakness is made in a more traditional style but, thematically, it sits comfortably alongside the rest of your work. It occurred to me while watching the film that infirmity is another issue that we often censor from the public view. I’m thinking of that closeup of Maud’s right hand trying to wrestle open the other, palsied hand. It reminded me, oddly enough, of Fu'ad Aït Aattou’s and Asia Argento’s naked, entangled bodies in The Last Mistress.

BREILLAT: I think that is a beautiful image. It’s strange. I’m an invalid, and I know it is not beautiful to be an invalid. Before, I always talked with my hands [she raises her left arm from below the table]. Yes, the image is indulgent, but it’s beautiful. It’s ugly and it’s beautiful.

NOTEBOOK: I know that you tend to not shoot many takes and that you like to walk into a setup and demonstrate for your actors how you want them to stand and move. Have you modified your methods in recent years? Are you still able to participate like that?

BREILLAT: Yes! Always. I thought, when I was preparing to shoot The Last Mistress, that I would never be able to do that again. But an actor doesn’t know how, as the character, to enter the scene. Your body is not the same when you feel desire or power or shame or shyness. You don’t walk in the same manner. Only I can find it, with my body, and I still do.

NOTEBOOK: I assume non-professional actors like Kool Shen are more willing to allow you to control their performances like that. Was that one of the sources of conflict with Huppert at the beginning of the shoot?

BREILLAT: Those first four days really were like a war zone. Who has the power? Once she saw that I had the power she began to obey. And she never obeys. [laughs]

No, really! The fights were awful, terrible. Isabelle said after that nobody in her life has treated her like that. And I said, “Even Pialat?” And she said, “Yes!” [laughs] “Very, very, very, very worse than Pialat!” It was terrible, the furor.

I think I was wrong. I think I went too far. I didn’t need to be so tough. I was insecure, and some of it could have been avoided. She left the set at times, and we wondered if she would come back. But she always came back to play the scene. And, of course, she was marvelous, so I knew I had to trust her.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a scene where Maud comes home carrying groceries on her back. She stands at the bottom of the stairs and tries to throw the bag over her head. Instead, she loses her balance and falls hard to the floor. It’s a difficult scene to watch. I was worried for her—for Huppert, I mean, not Maud. It made me wonder about your pre-production negotiations with actors.

BREILLAT: No, no. I cut a scene where Isabelle had to climb [raises right hand, implying a great height]. She and I both have incredible vertigo, but if it’s written in the script, she does it. And this I can’t show her how to do!

When we planned her fall at the bottom of the steps, a man prepared a false floor and some protections for her, because she had to hit her wrist on the metal bar. In fact, she fell on her neck. I was stunned because I thought surely she had hurt herself badly. A normal actress would stop the scene and think, “I’m crazy. It’s too dangerous.” Isabelle paid no attention. She’s like that.

Her gift is to be involved with her character just in the time she is playing it, and without protection. Actors are well paid but it is very dangerous work. Because after the shoot they are not themselves. It’s a stain—this other person, which is the part. They are like fantômes when they return to real life.

Isabelle is the character just when the scene begins, even if it is the most poignant scene. Acting is not playful. From here [hand on table representing beginning of scene] to here [hand on table representing end of scene], you are the person you interpret. And Isabelle, she can stop! She throws herself into the role, but when the scene stops, she becomes Isabelle Huppert.

I’ve never seen another actor or actress like that. They usually stay under the influence of the emotion they just played, and that destroys them a little bit. Nothing destroys her, and she knows that, so she can go very, very far. She has such control of her emotions, so she can give way, way more of herself than others do.

NOTEBOOK: I want to change subjects slightly. I saw The Last Mistress, Bluebeard (2009), and Sleeping Beauty (2010) here in Toronto. All three are period pieces, and in the audience Q&As you seemed to take great deal of pride in the materials and fabrics used to make the dresses and bed linens.

BREILLAT: Ha! Of course!

NOTEBOOK: I laughed during the scene in Abuse of Weakness when Maud gives detailed directions for the design of her walking boot because I could imagine you doing just that! So, did you sew all of those pillows on Maud’s bed?

BREILLAT: [Laughs] Isabelle asked what costume designer I’d hired for the movie. I said to her, “Me!” “It’s not possible, Catherine,” she said. “It’s too tiring. You cannot. You cannot.” And she wanted to give me her costumer, her hairdresser, all that. And, of course, I was her costumer. I make almost all of my costumes. I don’t know why. Sometimes I sign my designs with the name of my mother, Maillon, and this time I decided to sign them myself.

Isabelle never saw the costumes. Week after week she never saw the costumes. Finally, her agent asked me why Isabelle hadn’t looked at the costumes. In some ways Isabelle is like a child. She was so happy at the end of the shoot. She had sworn she would never weak black, but after the film she wanted to be in black. And she said, “Catherine, you should be a designer in an elite coutourier!”

For me, all of the set, the color of the set, is also costuming. For example, it was very difficult to find a location for the final scene. I needed a very big table to host the entire family [for when they meet with Maud and her attorney to address her debts]. When I found the location, there were many beautiful objects. But I looked at something like this [points to a window treatment hanging over my head], made of a brocade of silk, and suddenly I knew Maud had to be against that backdrop.

I called my costuming assistant, because we had to dye a silk shirt to match that color exactly. We had to buy raw silk. I wanted to sew an overcoat, so we went into my wardrobe and picked one out and then he sewed one like it in Isabelle’s size. When it was time to shoot the scene, she tried on all of the clothes that were prepared for her. They were beautiful, but only this one suited her.

In that final scene, she’s wearing a thin coral necklace, which I think of as being like a crown of thorns. Several of my films include an image of a throat being cut. I call it the “coral necklace.” It’s just a thin red line, like blood.

And you know the kimono in the film? It’s mine! I found the material with this sort of green and this sort of red and this particular form.

NOTEBOOK: The one Maud puts on when Vilko visits late at night? She asks him to help her tie it, but he more or less ignores her.

BREILLAT: Yes, yes. I was very proud of that scene. It’s the first moment when she wants to be beautiful for him. After, she wears only that ugly, ugly robe. She makes no more effort for him. She neglects her appearance.


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