Isabelle Huppert in Catherine Breillat's Abuse of Weakness

What is the greatest difference between a biographical film and a one based on a true story? French director Catherine Breillat, who’s coming to the New York Film Festival for the fifth time with her new film Abuse of Weakness, didn't give a straight answer to this question when she discussed the film at a recent press conference. She insisted, though, that the film is not a biopic.

Abuse of Weakness tells the story of Maud (Isabelle Huppert), a filmmaker who suffers a stroke that leaves her paralyzed in the left part of her body for an extended period of time, before she slowly regains partial function of her arm and leg. Right after the stroke, Maud casts Vilko (Kool Shen), a crook who publicly speaks about his life spent ripping people off, for her next movie because of his edgy personality. Soon enough they get very close, and Maud starts writing check after check to Vilko, “lending” him hundreds of thousands of euros.

The names are different and the film is set in Belgium instead of France, but the amazing Isabelle Huppert plays a truthful version of Catherine Breillat, who suffered a stroke in 2004 and met Christophe Roconcourt (Vilko in the film) shortly after that. Breillat signed checks for a total value of about $800,000 and later won a case against Roconcourt, whom she sued for “abuse of weakness,” a French legal term.

Huppert as Maud and rapper Kool Shen as Vilko

The Hollywood Reporter reflected on bracing honesty of Abuse of Weakness: “The feature seems less an exercise in catharsis than an almost documentary-like exploration of the facts that somehow led Breillat to be so irrationally kind and complacent toward someone who was clearly not making rational demands.”

Perhaps to gain some distance from such a tough experience, Breillat decided against a more traditional autobiographical approach. Huppert’s delivery is so real and authentic it sometimes feels like watching a documentary. Was some of the acting improvised? “Whenever an actor tries to derail from the script, I cut,” was Breillat’s simple, but effective answer.

Abuse of Weakness (Abus de Faiblesse)
Director: Catherine Breillat

Section: Official Selection
Screens: October 6 + 9

Official NYFF Description
In 2004, at the age of 56, Catherine Breillat suffered a serious stroke. Her left side was initially paralyzed and after five months in the hospital she worked like a demon to walk again. Not long after, she prepared an adaptation of her novel Bad Love and decided to cast the notorious “swindler of the stars”, Christophe Rocancourt, fresh from a jail term for fraud. Over the next several months, Rocancourt took advantage of Breillat’s condition and stood by her side as she wrote him checks amounting to €650,000. She later took him to court won her case, and chronicled the experience in a book that she has now adapted into a uniquely haunting film, with a bold, tough performance by Isabelle Huppert as the Breillat figure and French/Portuguese rapper Kool Shen as the con man.