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 sordi case histories to do this chilling true tale of occupied France. The little people outside Paris were left to their own devices to survive in the hardships of the Vichy years. Bored housewife Marie Latour paid a horrible price for what began as a logical solution to her problems.
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; instead she 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 easily slides into petty vice. She never becomes a prostitute but finds ways of profiting 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 prostitutes 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 over others.
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 revised statutes that have allowed harsh punishments for "moral" offenses against the state. In the German New Order abortions are an outrage - the state wants children.
As I explained before 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 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: