Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, 2013)
Two films, this week, about trauma to body and soul. One is clear-eyed and cutting, the other ostentatiously grim, lugubrious. Catherine Breillat's Abuse of Weakness (Abus de faiblesse, 2013) is the work of clarity—analytic autobiography of the best sort in which the French writer-director dissects her own swindling at the wily hands of career con artist Christophe Rocancourt, who took her for a high-six-figures sum after she suffered a debilitating stroke.
The names have been changed, but innocence has not been protected. Breillat's onscreen surrogate, Maud Shainberg (Isabelle Huppert, at the height of her icy powers), is an especially harsh self-portrait—a victim, yes, but one whose so-called weakness (the title refers to a French term of law) cannot be entirely explained away with medical or legal rationalizations. She's in many ways a willing dupe, so transfixed by the charms and guiles of gentleman thief Vilko Piran (hip-hop artist Kool Shen—an alluring bruiser) that the mere act of writing out a check is sexually tinged.
Those familiar with Breillat's filmography know that she often explores the carnal impulses that shape us, sometimes with explicit frankness, sometimes with theoretical distance, and at best with a striking blend of the two. One of my favorite images in her oeuvre is from the 2007 period drama The Last Mistress (Une vielle maîtresse): An elderly aristocrat lies suggestively prostrate—if still fully clothed and corseted—on a chaise lounge, an empty spirit glass dangling from her fingers. She seems like she's in a perpetual swoon, fully aware of, and perfectly content with, her own helplessness. The dangers, and the appeals, of attraction (sexual and otherwise) are suffused in every inch of the composition. The power of having no power.
Abuse of Weakness has similarly suggestive potency, nowhere more evident than in the opening scene in which Breillat pans up over a rumpled, blazing-white comforter to settle on Maud sleeping in bed. Huppert's freckled skin stands out strikingly against the alabaster fabric—she might be a living relief sculpture. Then Maud's hand starts to twinge. She scratches at something. She pushes herself to the edge of the bed. And she crashes to the floor, her body giving out completely.
What follows is one of the most clinical and horrifying depictions of a stroke and the hard recovery from same. (A sequence in which Maud attempts to laugh again by making grotesque vowel sounds is especially affecting in the way it completely elides easy pity and sentiment.) These early scenes also set a tone for the movie: Sober reportage. You can practically sense Breillat standing outside of herself, recollecting a terribly painful period with staggering lucidity. It feels particularly on point when a wheelchair-bound Maud rolls through a hospital corridor right past Breillat herself, hobbling along with the aid of a nurse and a cane—a fictional analogue and her real-world counterpart passing each other like ships in the night.
The film's focus only sharpens when Piran comes on the scene. Maud sees him on a TV chat show and insists he has to star in her next movie. (In real life, Breillat planned an onscreen pairing between Rocancourt and Naomi Campbell.) There's a spectacular smash cut from Piran on the television to him suddenly in Maud's apartment—it gives him a spectral power, a charismatic phantom materializing at will. Yet Maud soon loses whatever control she has (or thinks she has) over her new acquaintance, and it may in part be a willing acquiescence.
There's more than a tinge of S&M to their relationship, in the way Piran riles Maud up by acting exasperated at being in her presence, then pulling back just at the moment he risks losing her completely. It's a turn-on, especially since the other people in Maud's life remain at a pronounced emotional distance. During a particularly trying family lunch date, Maud's infirm mother defiantly rips off her diaper, which plays like a withering summation of her blood relations, who tend toward self-serving exasperation rather than empathy. Not one to fully blame others, Breillat makes sure there's enough interpretive space in Huppert's performance to suggest that Maud bears her fair share of responsibility for family and friends' overall air of arrogance and aggravation.
Dignity and tenderness are in short supply; the only thing to do is to seize at them aggressively, haphazardly. Yet the kind of attention Piran is selling—and on which Maud gets off until she just as suddenly doesn't—comes at a high price. The charge Maud feels writing that first check, ostensibly to help Piran pay off a large tax bill, soon becomes addiction, compulsion. And more and more difficult to justify the longer it goes. Breillat deftly maintains her observational rigor while Maud becomes ever more victimized, under mental attack by Piran and physical attack by her own body. There's a petrifying scene in which Maud collapses in her stairwell and tries to force herself to her feet, screaming for help only when it's clear her fragility in this situation is inescapable.
Piran gives Maud's weakness a cushion, absorbing her infirmities of mind and body, then using them against her. This appears to go on for several years. One of the great strengths of Abuse of Weakness is how Breillat distills time to a trenchant essence. It passes so quickly, becoming more amorphous and ungraspable, though the defining moments that make it up (Maud's many medical issues; her writing of those checks; her discouraging realization, finally, that Piran has expertly played her) stick out with razor-sharp clarity. When she faces her family in the charged final scene, Huppert's chilly features subtly, sublimely break down. "It was me, but it wasn't me," she repeats again and again, trying to account for her actions, and coming up empty. The only power she has left is to weep.
The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)
There's a perhaps apocryphal story (one of many, surely) about Pauline Kael: After viewing one of Kenji Mizoguchi's melodramas about women surviving in hardscrabble circumstances, the tart-tongued critic quipped to her friend, "Couldn't Mizoguchi have cracked a few jokes?" Kael's unverified sentiment parallels my own cheeky feelings toward Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant, a brutal, bleak, and bombastic 19th-century-set survivalist tale starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a frontiersman who must fend for himself after he's mauled by a bear. (Drudge Report obsessives will be sad to learn there is no forced beast-on-man intercourse, though Leo does climb naked into a horse's freshly sliced carcass at one point to keep warm. Get your jollies where you can.)
Last year's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) suggested Iñárritu might have a smidgen of levity heretofore obscured by the morose, portentous stylings of such films as 21 Grams (2003) and Biutiful (2010). Not so here: The glum and gloom has been cranked up to a Spinal Tap-ian 11 in The Revenant, and not even some expectedly pretty pictures by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki makes the 156-minutes-long trudge worth it.
DiCaprio's Hugh Glass (who I believe is never named onscreen) is basically a bag of bones tossed about by the beasts Nature, Memory and Manifest Destiny. In the opening scene, a wintry forest provides camouflage for a marauding party of Native Americans, who shoot up the members of Glass's trapper party until only a small band—which includes our protagonist's half Native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and mumbling psycho John Fitzgerald (a spectacularly awful Tom Hardy)—is left. Flashbacks sprinkled throughout fill in some of Glass's backstory: His Native wife (Melaw Nakehk'o) was murdered by soldiers several years before and now appears to him as a near-mute specter. (She's treated like, but lacks the resonance of, one of Malick's poetic ciphers.) So Glass has taken on the task of raising Hawk himself, amid a hostile, frequently racist atmosphere that leaves both father and son troubled and uncertain of their place in the world.
Iñárritu cares less about inner landscapes than outer ones, however. Snow-capped peaks, roaring rivers and roiling terrain are prevalent, none of them filmed in such a way that augments Glass's forbidding journey through the wilderness. We're merely meant to gawk in astonishment at the forbidding conditions in which Iñárritu has placed himself, his cast and his crew (cinema as cocky endurance test), and that leeches any lyricism from Lubezki's imagery—heavy, as per usual, on elaborate long takes that would be astonishing if they seemed like more than a great talent flexing his muscles.
The lengthy bear attack sequence that sets the lone-man portion of the narrative in motion is certainly an impressive technical feat, with our star pulled every which way, his body getting more broken and bloodied by the moment. (Though the CGI-looking antagonist strangely makes one long for the halcyon days of Bart the Bear and Jean-Jacques Annaud—no small feat that.)
From there, it's all about Leo (a powerhouse celebrity hiding behind a mountain-man goatee and artfully dispersed scars) stumbling his way through a variety of obstacles—from belligerent Indians to rushing rapids, from icy valleys to gun-toting Frenchmen—occasionally dreaming of his lost loved ones and nursing a festering grudge against Hardy's Bane-by-way-of-Daniel-Boone. Monotony sets in right quick, and the occasional sops to some divine hand guiding Glass in his quest would be laughable were Iñárritu's aesthetic not so relentlessly joyless.