The “provocatrice” of French cinema, CATHERINE BREILLAT is someone who likes playing with fire. Known for her unusual casting choices (e.g. casting porn actor Rocco Siffredi in the film Romance) and controversial films with a strong autobiographical slant, Breillat is always fierce at investigating human nature and her own often contradictory impulses, motivations and desires.
Abuse of Weakness is the consequence of a failed attempt at making another film, Bad Love, which was supposed to depict the strange, abusive relationship between a celebrity (to be played by Naomi Campbell) and her secret lover. Not able to resist her penchant for taking huge casting risks, Breillat chooses real-life con-man Christophe Rocancourt to play the role of the abusive lover. This led to the director becoming the victim of this ruthless perpetrator who swindled her of almost €1million even before starting to make the movie.
The film’s title, a reference to the legal charge Breillat levied against Rocancourt, depicts the relationship between the director and this notorious con-man in its most puzzling complexity. The reaction of the audience at its premiere at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013 was one of total bafflement: people did not understand how such a clever woman as Breillat could have been so naive to allow for this “abuse” to take place. Catherine herself vows that she doesn’t understand how that came to be either, hence her desire to make a film about it.
Below is an interview with the filmmaker Catherine Breillat taken on 16 October 2013 at Mayfair Hotel, London as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013 .
Dana:My reading of the film is that, despite the title, Maud is a very strong woman who likes playing with fire, and she actually enjoys the abuse.What is your reading of your own film?
Catherine: Yes but it is because she abuses her strength, which makes possible an abuse of her weakness, because you have the two. First, she is emotionally fragile like every artist in fact, and also physically very fragile.And she doesn’t want to accept that she is physically fragile. From the first time she says :”I want to love” and I think the desire to love is part of the story, because she is in love with him. Every time they behave like adolescents, it’s part of the relationship, that’s why an abuse of weakness is pleasant, when you live that, it’s delicious, the life of someone who is handicapped becomes delicious. When I’m alone in my flat and I have to wake up and first to stand up and find my equilibrium[…]. It’s very very complicated and dangerous for me, I need concentration. I never got used to suddenly not being able to take off a book from the shelf. If I want to understand really, I just sit and cry.
Dana: But she doesn’t come across as a victim at all, and the impression of strength she gives is stronger than the impression of weakness.
Catherine: Because in my case and of course in the case of the film, to be victim is for the law and also for the reason (?). The reason is that she was a victim, but her character is to refuse to consider herself a victim, either of the stoke, or of him.
Dana: She’s very dignified.
Catherine: Yes, I think so.
Dana: If you could tell us something about the nature of this fascination she has with him.
Catherine: It was very important that he was my actor, because every director of a movie has to be fascinated with the actor. It’s even the reason why I don’t want to see them more than the first or second time. Even Isabelle, I know her very very well, but when I asked her to play the role, I just gave her the script, I had dinner with her and my producer and I never talked with her and her with me. We had no such desire.
Dana: How did you work with Isabelle Huppert and Kool Shen during the shoot?
[When we started filming] the first time I saw Isabelle was for the costume and the second day we shot the photo which is on her book. It’s so fascinating to see Isabelle and Kool Shen together. And the reason I wanted to cast him, it’s because I wanted to transform him in the phantasm of the character I need for my movie. It’s the same for me, for instance a violonist needs Stradivarius but you don’t talk to your Stradivarius. In this case you can have a rehearsal, [but it is important that] actors are not considered as related to anyone but as material to make the movie. It’s a very strange relationship, it’s not because you deny them as human beings, but this is not what you need for your movie. You need the phantasm, not what they are, that’s why I don’t want to see them before, because I want to dream, and not to have too much material life with them. On the set they say my word and not their word, I don’t want to hear them with their word before. The only things that passionate me is to hear my word, to put them in my costume and in this situation, and in this place, and in front of the camera, with the anxiety, and for them and for me to succeed.
It’s also why it’s so fascinating and exhilarating to make a movie, it’s a sort of creative empathy with actors and me and my movie…The movie is mine, it’s theirs, and in fact it is abstract, it’s something […] which has its own existence, it is not a biopic but I direct my actors very strongly, […] but at the same time I choreograph all the time my scenes, in very long shot, so they have to learn the choreography very well because of the focus. If they play beautifully but I don’t have the focus there’s no film. And after, when some shot is incredible, never rehearse the scene, in my opinion. I never never never repeat the scene with the sentiment, the feeling and the emotion with them. Just the place. When I film for the first time, sometimes the first time is so beautiful, so surprising, I want my actors to surprise me and I become emerveillee by them!That is my way of making a film.
Dana: The film is quite a tough watch in places. How was it for you to relive those moments on the screen, and how did you feel watching and making this film?
Catherine: I cried many many times and it’s still very difficult for me to speak on this subject and the character of Maud. So yes sometimes I cry. But I can say “Maud is a transposition, in a sense it’s me but it’s not me”. I don’t know, I can’t speak of Maud, I can direct Maud but my feelings are impossible, and I cry. But on the set I don’t cry. For the actors it was much more emotional than if it was just fiction because Isabelle interprets a character very very close to the director, she knows me very very well, we have been friends for more than 20 years. So yes, there was a lot of emotion but the most important emotion is the emotion of the film. That’s why Isabelle can be an actress and not a transposition of me. She’ll never accept to interpret me, never.
Dana: Why would she never accept to interpret you?
Catherine: Because it would be “miserable”, “mesquin”, with interest… Just to become somebody in front of the same person. And I don’t like biopics, I hate biopics, it’s easier to make a biopic than to play the person who is filming you.
Dana: So when you were on set and you were directing, were you able to have some objectivity towards the character of Maud?Were you able to see her as a separate character?
Catherine: If I have emotion as a spectator, I don’t care if it is really my emotion when I was in this situation or not, because in fact I cannot remember and understand what was my real emotion in this situation. Yes for me it is also a surprise to see that and is it really true? Or just the interpretation of the script?I don’t care. If the emotion is there, if the movie is good, it’s just that. After all, yes, I am a director and my only only thought is for my film, and more for this one, because everybody knows that it’s very close to me because it is also a story for the tabloids. So it will be more shame for the director if this movie becomes a vulgar pretext to attract an audience. […]And I want to not be ridiculous. In life yes I was ridiculous to live this story. But I don’t want to be ridiculous making this movie, nor a fool of my ego.
“All true artists are hated” – an interesting interview with Catherine Breillat in The Telegraph