Une affaire de femmes

(Story of Women, France - 1988)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Francois Cluzet, Nils Tavernier, Marie Trintignant, Dominique Blanc
Genre: Drama
Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Colo Tavernier & Claude Chabrol from Francis Szpiner's book
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Composer: Matthieu Chabrol
Runtime: 108 minutes

The influence of Otto Preminger on Claude Chabrol has always been downplayed in favor of Alfred Hitchcock, but once again Chabrol acts as non judgmental judge presiding over the facts by showing as many sides and aspects of the accused as possible. Even though we know the outcome beforehand due to Story of Women being based on the true story of Marie-Louise Girand, Chabrol still renders his film as an insidious mystery.

Une Affair De Femmes deals with the issues of abortion, prostitution, and the death penalty, showing the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the Vichy regime that’s controlling fallen France, but secondarily that of the French themselves. Some form of compromise comes with any time period, and man’s weakness and selfishness leads to misdeeds. Nazis are worse because they aren’t so much even punishing for legality or opposition, but simply for making your own decisions, for trying to be free. As always, morality is the last refuge of the immoral as national security is of the insecure. But whatever evils may pervade due to Puppet Petain, Chabrol shows the French to be more at odds with themselves; the fascists simply bring certain deficiencies to the fore.

Family is the center of the film, and every action from either adult has important understated effects on the entire unit. Marie (Isabelle Huppert) has suffered, struggling to feed the kids while Paul (Francois Cluzet) was fighting the Nazis. She blames him for everything, as marriage promised her a better life but hasn’t come close to delivering it, causing her to refuse to give him an inch out of spite.

Paul returns from a stay in detainment camp wounded and broken. He needs Marie for all types of support, but she rejects him because he can’t provide what he needs himself. Life went on without him, and he’s not been missed. His return means even less food to go around, less motherly attention, and the revocation of certain privileges such as the son sleeping in the good bed with his mom. Paul’s existence is solitary, full of longing, want, and horniness for his wife who perpetually refuses her “duties”. He can’t get any part of his life back, and Marie feels he’s merely too lazy. Of course, being a drunk with a violent streak doesn’t help his cause. Like his country, Paul doesn’t put up much of a fight, but he wanted to then and eventually will regain his strength and make his stand against the current enemy.

Marie doesn’t have any diabolical plot. She stumbles upon a neighbor trying to abort a child and quickly sees she can do it better. More importantly to her, the compensation she’ll receive will make her life more tolerable. Marie becomes a capitalist, allowing her to provide a more comfortable life and have some fun. Her childlike exuberance grows as her illegal activities - she also lets her new friend Lulu (Marie Trintignant) use her home for a flophouse – improve her means, thus giving the uneducated woman freedom to pursue singing lessons.

Claude Chabrol shows every side of Isabelle Huppert’s character, with her husband, kids, nazi aiding lover Lucien (Nils Tavernier son of screenwriter Colo and director Bertrand Tavernier) who has some of the prestige and influence she believed her husband would, clients, prostitute friend, and accusers. We see her ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses. As always, ever brilliant Huppert denies us access to her mind and resists our empathy at every turn. She’s not a saint like Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, and the film is far more multi-layered for it. She’s just an ordinary woman who wants more from life than she’s had, and winds up paying far more dearly than she deserves.

Huppert is one of the most intelligent actresses, but is probably even better at playing dumb. She has a childish obliviousness to the weight of her actions, to the fact they have any weight. Few performers could pull off a line (about her best friend who was suddenly interned) like “Rachel can’t be Jewish, she would have told me so” without being laughed off the screen. Chabrol rides her for all she’s worth, with Trintignant and especially the vastly underrated Cluzet making more out of their characters than they should be.

As always, Chabrol doesn’t take sides. This isn’t a unilateral plea riddled with sentiment and emotion and overloaded with moralization. We see the good and bad in every character, and we come to our own conclusions because the film isn’t a manipulative polemic. In the end, we question whether the wartime setting should change our expectations for the characters or if a very similar story couldn’t be made of the present.



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