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They called Claude Chabrol "the French Hitchcock," but this was always more a marketing hook than a meaningful comparison. Alfred Hitchcock made crowd-pleasing suspense thrillers; Chabrol made vicious satires disguised as suspense thrillers. For decades, Chabrol had been crafting spiky, embittered dramas simmering with disgust for humanity in general and the French bourgeoisie in specific. He had his eye on making a pointed attack on Vichy France.
The details of history are relevant: here is a quick summary. In 1940, facing imminent defeat to Nazi Germany, France capitulated and installed a puppet fascist state headed by former war hero Philippe Ptain. Because his reactionary government was based in Vichy, instead of Paris, the term "Vichy France" refers to those four nightmare years when France chose to turn itself into a Nazi satellite.
Among the many things the Vichy regime did to mollify the German occupiers was to promise that the Vichy State Tribunal would execute a certain number of criminals. Unable to meet that quota with the usual suspects of hardened criminals and Communists, the Tribunal broadened its jurisdiction, roped in retired and otherwise unqualified jurists to stock its benches, and started hunting for more people to execute.
In the midst of this, a young woman named Marie-Louise Giraud was arrested for performing back-alley abortions. What she was doing was illegal, and in any circumstances she was destined to get into trouble over it. Under Ptain, it got her beheaded. Giraud was the last woman guillotined in France, and her story fascinated screenwriter Francis Szpiner.
Szpiner researched the case, and focused on the cruel irony of a state wishing to make an example of how women ought not say no to being mothers, but did so by depriving Giraud's own children of their mother. Une Affaire de Femmes (Story of Women, 1988) was the resulting film, in which writer Szpiner stayed close to the historical facts while giving director Chabrol an opportunity to bring his legendary sensibility to the material.
Chabrol directed the film with a careful eye to how compositions and editorial rhythms influence audience reactions. He actively sought what he called a "rough look," to avoid compositions that seemed too orderly or artificially composed, and thereby heighten the naturalism and allow his camera to creep into just the right position for a particular effect without the audience perceiving the subtle manipulations. The impression is one of almost careless inattention to style, but that impression was created with meticulous diligence.
Isabelle Huppert plays the lead role of Marie, a mother of two small children struggling to make ends meet in a mean world. Her husband is away at a German work camp, as are all eligible men. Food and drink are rationed. Her best friend disappears in the night and is taken to a concentration camp.
In this post-apocalyptic ruin, women take work where they can find it, like knitting...or prostitution. She tries that first option and doesn't think much of the money; she doesn't have the temperament for the second option, but has a good friend who seems to thrive at it. Marie realizes that hookers need a safe, inexpensive place to conduct their business--and that the proprietor of such a safe haven could make some tidy money without much risk. And so Marie starts renting out a spare room.
There's something else. Along the way, Marie discovers an aptitude for performing abortions. There's a high demand for the service, and the money is excellent, but compared to playing madam to some well-behaved sex workers, being an abortionist represents a whole different category of personal risk. And it is this second career that eventually brings down the greatest punishment on her.
But punishment for what? She's breaking the law, of course, and Story of Women does touch briefly on the larger debate of the morality of abortion (mindful of the contemporary debates on abortion, as relevant to 1988 as to 1943 as to the present day). More to the point, she's a feminist threat to a world of men. Marie ignores and neglects her son while doting on her daughter. She bristles in loathing at the touch of her husband and complains how women are perpetually enslaved to the needs of men. She funds improvements to her lifestyle by defying patriarchal sex roles and empowering the women around her. And she cultivates the ruthless demeanor of a talented businessman--she hires a maid to do the household chores she despises, and then pays that woman to sleep with her husband (how's that for delegating!).
When she is arrested and put on trial, the film suddenly shifts gears and transitions into a courtroom drama. To emphasize the aesthetic disruption, Chabrol introduces some unexpected voice-over narration by Marie's son, reminiscing about these events from the point of view of the future. Up until this point, Marie has been depicted as a complex figure, one that alienates the audience as well as invites empathy. There is room for the audience to dislike her, even vilify aspects of her. But once the film moves into its endgame, Marie becomes a victim to much darker forces. The callous hypocrites who calmly sentence her to death for her crimes while blithely ignoring the social conditions that invited, supported, and justified her actions are the true villains. Marie spits at their false piety, "it's easy to keep your hands clean when you're rich."
You could marvel that it took Chabrol so long to get around to making an anti-Vichy film. But you could also note that he had been gunning for the Vichystes all along and just hadn't been so blunt before. In fact, Story of Women should feel very familiar. He had made this movie before.
Almost ten years to the day before making Story of Women, Chabrol made another true-life crime story, set in the past, starring Isabelle Huppert as a notorious figure accused of crimes against family values. Indeed, Violette Nozire was not just made ten years earlier, it depicted a historical event that was ten years before the beheading of Marie-Louise Giraud. Noezire was a young bourgeois woman in the mid 1930s who poisoned her parents (her mother survived) and stole their money to give to her lover. On trial, she defended her actions, saying her father had sexually abused her for years (although Chabrol's wickedly entertaining adaptation of the story never commits to any definitive answer of what motivated Violette).
Violette Nozire established a structural pattern: Isabelle Huppert as a protagonist who hates her family and yearns for escape; she flirts with prostitution and engages in petty violations of the law; her personal saga becomes entwined with larger issues of gender equality and female empowerment; she is arrested and thrown in jail where she is a misfit with the prison population; the state tries her case in an effort to not only prosecute her specific crimes but to get to some larger political point. Story of Women rehabbed that structure, tore down the faade and built a new movie on its foundations. Both films use the same ingredients to get to very different effects.
This is not to say that Chabrol was simply peeking back to 1978 when he made Story of Women. Longtime Chabrol fans may well come to this finale with a different sense of dj vu--back in 1962, Chabrol's Landru adapted the true story of France's so-called "Bluebeard," who kept himself fed through WWI by marrying an array of wealthy women who he murdered and burned (and let's note the fact that Landru was tried in 1922, Violette in 1933, and Marie-Louise in 1943--sense a pattern?). Charlie Chaplin turned the Landru story into Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a film whose black comedy turned many audiences off. Chabrol's Landru is equally bleak and equally comic, and was also treated with critical and popular revulsion. The critics who had hailed Chabrol's early New Wave classics like Les Cousins (1959) balked at the weirdly Hollywood-style gloss and candy colors he brought to a tale of a serial killer. Landru finishes in the same vein as Story of Women, with the character taking a stand at his trial as a political martyr.
Story of Women is a more accomplished retread of familiar ground, and its shifts in tone are handled more deftly. It also benefits immeasurably from the richly nuanced performance of Isabelle Huppert, in her second of seven roles for Chabrol, and her second Csar Award nomination. The depth that Huppert brings to the role of Marie is outmatched only by the breathtaking variety of roles she has played in Chabrol's films in the ensuing years. After Chabrol's passing in 2010, Huppert told Movieline, "When it happened, I realized how much I owed him. How much he loved me, how precious my relationship to him was. He filmed me like I was his daughter -- not an object of fantasy, but just like his daughter. He was not idealizing me. There was no seduction, you know? It was like a father would film his child. So that made it easier to have total confidence -- which I gave him back, of course, because there was mutual trust. It was total acceptance of who I was, which is an immense gift for an actor. It's really taking a person and exploring every little detail and bit of her persona, you know?"
This was the secret of the film's success. Story of Women takes a person and explores every little detail and bit of her persona, and yet that intimate individuality is also mapped onto an epic scale, the life of one singular woman as a study in the corruption of an entire society. The personal as the political. Chabrol's bluntest assault on the Vichy era succeeds because of Huppert's sympathetic portrayal of a messy, contradictory, and ambiguous woman. This may be called Story of Women, but it is the story of a woman. And all the better for it.
Producer: Marin Karmitz
Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Colo Tavernier, Claude Chabrol, based on a book by Francis Szpiner
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Production Design: Francoise Benoit-Fresco
Music: Matthieu Chabrol
Film Editing: Monique Fardoulis
Cast: Isabelle Huppert (Marie), Francois Cluzet (Paul), Marie Trintignant (Lulu), Nils Tavernier (Lucien), Marie Bunel (Ginette), Dominique Blanc (Jasmine), Evelyne Didi (Fernande).
by David Kalat
Guy Austin, Claude Chabrol, Manchester University Press 1999.
Christian Blanchet, Claude Chabrol, Rivages/Cinema 1989.
Claude Chabrol, audio commentary, A Story of Women DVD, Home Vision Entertainment 2004.
Martin Karmitz, interview, A Story of Women DVD, Home Vision Entertainment 2004.
Francis Szpiner, interview, A Story of Women DVD, Home Vision Entertainment 2004.
S.T. Vanairsdale, "Isabelle Huppert on White Material, Missing Chabrol, and the Joys of Law & Order: SVU," Movieline, November 16, 2010.
Robin Wood and Michael Walker, Claude Chabrol, Praeger Film Library 1970.