Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Calling a movie "devastating" is easy, and these days any show with an emotional shock or two fits
the bill. Claude Chabrol turned from unsentimental murder stories and sordid case histories to do this
chilling true tale of occupied France. In the hardships of the Vichy years, the little people outside
Paris were left to their own devices to find ways to survive. Bored housewife Marie Latour paid a horrible
price for what began as a logical solution to her problems.
Marie Latour (Isabelle Huppert) struggles to keep her kids from starving in the
middle of the Nazi occupation of her part of rural France. Her husband is a prisoner of the Germans
and is eventually allowed to come home. But Marie is already striking out on her own. After helping
a neighbor with a homemade abortion, she begins doing it for money. Soon she meets Lulu (Marie
Trintignant), a streetwalker. They form a friendship and Marie lets out her extra room for Lulu's
assignations. Soon Marie becomes both a performer of illegal operations and a brothel keeper. Her
huband Paul (Francois Cluzet) is frustrated. With her new source of money Marie wants nothing to do
with him and prefers her boyfriend, Lucien (Nils Tavernier). The family's standard of living goes up
as Paul's morale sinks. Marie has grossly favored her tiny daughter over her young son Pierrot
(Nicholas Foutrier), and now she's able to give both of them attention. But fate trips her up ...
The subject of collaboration under the Nazis was famously broached in the two-part documentary
The Sorrow and the Pity. Claude
Chabrol's Story of Women hits several hot topics squarely on the head - abortion, capital
punishment, and the risks women take in a paternal society. Marie Latour is by no means a saint.
She discriminates against her resilient, loving son and cruelly rejects her husband with an almost
sadistic pleasure. His advances are crude but she's not interested in altering his behavior; she instead
shuts him out as worthless and unemployable. Although she's completely apolitical and doesn't
even understand why her girlfriend Rachel (Miryam David) is taken away ("She would have told me if
she was Jewish!") Marie certainly understands that having money to spend is better than starving.
So a housewife slides easily into a life of petty vice. She never becomes a prostitute but finds ways
from it. Soon she's able to afford nice clothes and a much better apartment and sees nothing wrong
with flaunting her comfortable circumstances while those around her wear rags and look the other way.
This selfishness is Marie's tragic flaw - she sees very little good in the world and childishly
amuses herself without a thought for the consequences.
Chabrol makes this film a document of women under stress. The prostitute Lulu has things under
control yet raises an eyebrow to Marie's ambitions. The women who come to her for abortions range
from unfeeling and crude to lonely and desperate. Some are professional hookers and others are
lonely women who have slept with German soldiers because their husbands are far away. Their faces
stay etched in the memory, especially one miserable wife who already has six children because she
can't deny her husband's needs. Marie sheds a tear for her but isn't going to let the woman interfere with
the party schedule. In a way, the film is pro-abortion, because it shows the tragedy that results
when women aren't allowed to determine what happens with their own bodies. Marie is surely her own
worst enemy, but a large part of the crime is the unfairness of nature (unwanted pregnancies) and
the rest is the puritanical sector of society that demands the pleasure of holding moral judgment
Reality hits Marie just as things are going well. She has time to be generous and
loving with her son Pierrot - the joyous look on the kid's face is heartbreaking. Arrested for
her crimes (I won't say how), Marie falls under new rules and is taken to Paris to be tried before a
kangaroo court. Her defense attorneys are helpless against revised statutes that allow harsh punishments
for "moral" offenses against the state. In the German New Order abortions are an outrage - the state
Story of Women is based on true events and Marie eventually becomes
a notorious statistic in one of the most shameful events of the occupation. It's all the more
shocking now, considering how close our own country is coming to a point where intolerant religious
zealots could impose their moral ideas as law ... as the producer of Story of Women reports,
one of the first things George Bush did was to withdraw funding for pro-choice programs.
Isabelle Huppert is amazing as the woman who takes an immoral path and pays an unjust penalty.
Francois Cluzet shows us an equally selfish but sympathetic guy who could be a decent
husband if guided in the right direction. And the only thing that helps us bear the image of the
loving, neglected son is an imposed voiceover of him as an adult - he seems to have grown up despite everything.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Story of Women is an example of a DVD company at its best, giving
a deserving film an A+ presentation. The transfer is beautiful, enhanced and warmly colored, matching the
rich image of Ms. Huppert on the box cover (above). The soundtrack features Marie's favorite phonograph records
(El Rancho Grande sung in French, no less) and the expressive score by the director's son Matthieu.
The extras add a lot to the package. Director Chabrol goes through some scenes, describing his visual choices
and what they convey. The producer tells how hard it was to sell this picture both in France and in America -
he formed MK2 distributors because every company in the U.S. turned it down even after it had won several
awards. Critic Joël Magny hosts a visual evaluation of the movie, and HVe's Wheeler Winston Dixon provides
concise, provocative liner notes in the form of a short essay. The original trailer perhaps shows why the film
couldn't find a normal distributor: its centerpiece is Marie's blasphemous, spiteful rendition of a Hail Mary,
the film's strongest punch. Americans may be easily offended, but the trailer makes us think the film is going
to be a lot more offensive.
Writer Francis Szpiner researched the case and reports on the legal situation of Vichy France, giving
details that the movie really should have included. Marie is brought to Paris to be tried by a
"Special Section" composed of retired judges, military officers and "interested parties," a
tribunal convened to appease the German masters by filling out an execution quota for "special
offenders of the state." The judge in Marie's case was a semi-senile old man in love with the idea
of punishing people, and the tribunal broke every modern idea of law by making its moral crimes
punishable retroactively - a man sentenced for a year for posting anti-German leaflets was pulled
from prison, retried, and executed. In an historical period rife with injustice this was one of
the worst abominations. No wonder French conservatives didn't want the movie shown.
Knowing that I can now be arrested and held because some policeman or judge might think I'm a threat to
"national security" now makes Story of Women all the more chilling. Chabrol possibly didn't know
he was making a cautionary film about the repeal of basic legal rights. If you're thinking of taking
a risk on a controversial foreign film, this is a highly recommended choice.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Story of Women rates:
Supplements: interviews and docus with the director, writer, producer and a film critic,
essay by Wheeler Winston Dixon
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 16, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson