Zach Clark is the writer/director of Modern Love is Automatic, Vacation!, White Reindeer and Little Sister. His films have played across the United States and Europe at festivals including SXSW, Edinburgh, Outfest, BAMcinemaFest and Stockholm. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
I’ve never technically met Catherine Breillat, but I did eat dinner sitting across the table from her for two or three nights at a tiny film festival in Germany last year. She was always the first one there. No matter how promptly I thought I was arriving in the hotel dining room, there she was already, dressed in black, seated at the far end of the table, looking as serious as cancer. I knew she was going to be there, and had asked the festival staff about her earlier in the day. I was told she would only speak to you in French, which I don’t speak at all. But, really, if I did, what would I even say to Catherine Breillat? “Hi, my name is Zach. Bluebeard was my favorite movie of 2009.” I always get extra nervous meeting filmmakers whose work has influenced me, and I’ve been a fan of Breillat’s for over a decade. Ultimately I was all atwitter just being in her presence, and in that moment, that was enough. (I will add that if you do speak French she will apparently talk your ear off. After getting very accustomed to her stone-faced interviews and Q&As, I saw her light up in a way I’d never have expected.)
The first Breillat movie I ever heard about was Romance, which was more or less pitched to me as the French movie with Rocco Siffredi in it. I was working at Video Vault in Alexandria, VA, and Siffredi was, to put it as diplomatically as possible, a bit of a cult figure among the staff. A major player in the gonzo porn explosion of the ’90s, his, uh, star had risen by appearing in things like Buttman in Barcelona, and the notion of him “acting” seemed a pretty big stretch. Watching Romance as a high-school senior, I wasn’t terribly taken with it; not quite porny or arty enough for my tastes in either. It’s still one of my least favorite of her movies — Breillat’s Rochelle, Rochelle— and feels like something she needed to make in order to figure things out before moving on to better and bolder work, including her reteaming with Siffredi, Anatomy of Hell.
When asked by Indiewire why she cast him, Breillat answered, “The first reason was that I simply wanted to. I’d seen Rocco before and I adored him.” She continued, “The other reason I chose him was because he had the physical qualities I needed for the role. He’s very good-looking, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these days most French actors aren’t very good-looking. In the past, they were handsome, but not these days.”
In Breillat’s newest movie, Abuse of Weakness, film director and recent stroke victim Maud (Isabelle Huppert) says more or less the same thing when she’s flipping channels and catches an interview with celebrity con man Vilko Piran (in a totally Breillat casting move, French rapper Kool Shen plays Vilko). Maud immediately picks up her cellphone and demands a meeting with him, intrigued by his “bitter pride.” They meet, she offers him a role in her new movie, and they begin a relationship which ends only after Vilko has fleeced Maud for roughly 700,000 euros. Maud is Breillat, and Vilko is Christophe Rocancourt, and this movie is an allegedly verbatim account of what actually happened to Breillat after she approached Rocancourt about starring in a movie she was making with Naomi Campbell.
This isn’t the first time the director has used narrative film as autobiography. Sex is Comedy recounts her efforts to direct two bickering young performers through a sex scene on the set of Fat Girl.Comedy is a lark, at least by Breillat’s standards, that finds her on-screen surrogate navigating the ups and downs of her set before emerging triumphant. (Fat Girl was an international hit, after all, and remains one of her best known, most well-liked films.) Weakness is the opposite. It’s a catalog of humiliations, and not the kind that self-casting auteurs like Woody Allen or Louis C.K. endure for yuks and sympathy.
Isabelle Huppert, one of cinema’s great sufferers, plays Maud with Breillat’s characteristically direct deadpan, laced with a streak of perverse humor. (“I love to laugh,” laments Maud from her hospital bed immediately after her stroke, “and now I can’t laugh anymore.”) Breillat wants us to watch, not empathize. She’s not asking for our sympathy, only our patience. Her frames are too clean, classical and precisely lit, and they serve to present the action as directly as possible. Maud writes the first few checks willingly, but even when she protests, there isn’t much at stake if she says no, except that she might not see Vilko again. Their relationship isn’t sexual; the height of their intimacy is the daily cellphone call she receives from him when she wakes up each morning. When her daughter asks, “What was so special about him?” Maud replies, “He was there.” And that, beyond Breillat’s penchant for pointing a camera at rough and dangerous men, is the best explanation we’re given. As with all her work, Breillat takes what on the surface should play like a cautionary tale and implicates all parties.
All art is autobiographical, but it seems extra fitting that Catherine Breillat, who has made a career of capturing her characters at their most vulnerable and reprehensible, would want to directly recreate her own worst (and most public) humiliation for the screen. In the closing scene, when [SPOILER ALERT] Maud can only justify her actions by repeating, “It was me, but it wasn’t me,” she’s not only summing up humanity’s impulse for self-destruction, but Breillat’s modus operandi, and, most accurately, moviemaking itself.