In his stunning debut, Judge Neal Solon takes a penetrating look at this underappreciated gem of the French New Wave.
"When a nation has gangrene, there's no place for sentimentality. We must sever the gangrened limb."—Colonel Chabert (Jacques Brunet)
Claude Chabrol is known as one of the fathers of the French New Wave movement. Perhaps lesser known than some of his counterparts such as Truffaut and Godard, Chabrol has had highs and lows in his 46-year career. One of the high points came in 1988 with Story of Women, a well told tale of the life of one woman and how her choices and the social environment in which she makes them serve to change her life.
Facts of the Case
In 1940 the Nazis overtook much of France. In the wake of the capture of Paris, the French installed a new government more amenable to the Nazi's demands, in the city of Vichy. This government bowed under the pressure of Nazi Germany, rounding up thousands of Jews to be interned and disbanding the French military. Needless to say, this Vichy government was not well liked. It is still remembered as a government that was corrupt, a government that was cruel, and a government that wreaked havoc on the lives of many. Claude Chabrol's Story of Women tells the tale of Marie-Jeanne Latour (Isabelle Huppert, The Bedroom Window), a middle aged housewife with two children, struggling to make ends meet in this time and this political situation.
With her husband away fighting, Marie has little means to provide for her children until she stumbles upon a way to make money. She helps a distraught neighbor, pregnant with an unwanted child, to perform an illegal abortion. For her services, Marie is given a phonograph. Recognizing the potential to change her family's financial situation, Marie slowly begins to advertise her services. She tells a prostitute and acquaintance named Lulu (Marie Trintignant) that she can help, should Lulu ever find herself "in a bind." Soon, people begin showing up at Marie's door requesting Marie's aid—people referred directly by Lulu and, eventually, people who have heard about Marie second or third hand. Marie questions no one and performs abortions for them all.
Having gotten a taste of money and of what it can buy her in this time of war and food "coupons," Marie expands her operations. She begins renting one of her rooms to Lulu so she can provide her "services" to men. Just as his home has become a haven for prostitutes and the unwilling pregnant, Marie's husband Paul (François Cluzet) returns from the front and the story begins to get more interesting. Marie is uninterested in her husband and does what she can to ignore him. She does not love him and now that she has a means of providing for herself she has no plans to let him influence her life. Little does she know that his jealousy will impact her life severely and lead her to discover just how unforgiving the Vichy government can be.
When I first described this film to my friends, I described it as a movie based on a true story about abortion and France and Nazis in World War II. I had it all wrong. While each of these subjects certainly appears in the film, Story of Women is more the story of one woman and her struggles under the watchful eye of the Vichy government. Every day she meets other women who live with the same struggles and the same obstacles, and the story becomes one of the women who must simultaneously rear the children of absent husbands and find some way to feed those children and themselves.
Surprisingly, the methods that Marie chooses to earn money for her family never become the focus of Story of Women. In fact, the first abortion in the film happens so nonchalantly that one doesn't stop to think about the impact it will have on Marie's life. By avoiding the volatile issues of the morality of abortion and prostitution, the film allows the viewer to focus more completely on the characters being portrayed. While personal stances on these moral issues will certainly color how many view Marie, Isabelle Huppert's performance never allows one to wholly despise or embrace the character.
Huppert effortlessly portrays a woman driven by many forces. She is at times driven by lust for money, lust for power, and lust for men; but she is also driven by a desire to provide for her children, a desire to help her neighbor, and a desire to be free of the roles placed on her by society and circumstance. For her performance in the role, Huppert won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival.
Another fine performance comes from the least likely of places, a child. Guillaume Foutrier plays Pierrot, Marie's son, who is the only male constant in Marie's life. Pierrot is both affectionately loved and callously ignored by his mother; Foutrier makes the emotional ups and downs of this life subtly apparent. In doing so, he somehow manages to avoid the melodramatic pitfalls of many actors his age. His face is mildly reminiscent of David Bennent, who played Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum, but avoids Matzerath's pantomime expressions of emotion. Foutrier's performance gives insight into not only his own life, but that of his mother. Sadly, it seems that this was Guillaume Foutrier's only film—I can find no information about him other than his name, and the suggestion that Pierrot may have been played both by him and by someone who is likely his brother, Nicolas Foutrier.
The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that it was individual characters, Marie especially, that make Story of Women an interesting film. How then does one account for the film's title and its use of the plural form "women"? I wrestled with this, trying to find some deeper meaning in the film based on this title. Certainly, Story of Women is meant to represent the lives of the women who remained "on the home front" in Vichy France during World War II. Beyond that, the abortion aspect of the plot undoubtedly deals most directly with women. Do these things make Story of Women an appropriate title?
Consider the French title, Une Affaire de Femmes. Now, my French is limited, but I would be inclined to translate this as something more akin to "A Women's Affair" or "Women's Business," both titles that better embody the implications that I think the English title is meant to convey. In this sense, it can refer directly to the act of abortion, but also to the fact that this film is most directly the story of the women of France in the year 1941. The situations these women face everyday take precedence over the political climate that helped get them there, a secondary concern that makes the film more historically and socially relevant.
Now that we know Story of Women is worth watching, let me tell you how this film looks on disc. Story of Women is over twenty years old. Time has treated it well, as have the people at Home Vision Entertainment. If the trailer included on the disc is any indication of the film's state before restoration, the people at Home Vision Entertainment worked wonders, and they should be commended for their clean and aesthetically pleasing transfer and restoration work. There are a few scenes where one can find minor blemishes if actively looking, but nothing distracting in the least.
The audio for Story of Women has also fared well over time. It is presented in the original French mono and is clear and free of any major distracting noise. In all, Home Vision Entertainment has given an under appreciated film a worthy presentation, and the presentation does not stop with the video and the audio. On tap are a respectable slate of extras that include comments and recollections from the director, a producer, a writer and a couple of critics.
The first, and perhaps most notable extra, is a collection of scene comments by director Claude Chabrol. Chabrol provides his insight into a number of scenes from the movie and discusses the broader themes, without feeling the need to talk constantly through the whole film. The result is a commentary that is never boring nor without interesting things to say. On the flip side, the scene comments and the associated scenes only last about 23 minutes, a fraction of Story of Women's running time. Still, I prefer this approach as we get only what Chabrol thought was important to say. An additional benefit is that we get glimpses of Chabrol as he records his comments. There's something oddly entertaining about seeing this aging director as he is now, talking about a film he made decades ago but obviously remembers fondly.
There are two accompanying interviews: one with writer Francis Szpiner and the other with producer Marin Karmitz. Karmitz tells of the troubles that he and Claude Chabrol had in marketing Story of Women in the United States. The film deals with polarizing issues, including abortion and prostitution, and Karmitz attributes the trouble they had distributing the film to these issues. In the end, Karmitz founded MK2 Distributors just to ensure this film had a stateside release .
Francis Szpiner's interview is both longer and less entertaining. He's a less engaging storyteller and much of what he says is not immediately pertinent to one's understanding of the film. In the end, there are worthwhile facts to be gleaned from his interview about the true story of Marie Latour, French history—and what drew Szpiner, as a writer, to the film.
Also included on the disc are a presentation by film critic Joël Magny and the original French theatrical trailer. The presentation by Magny is brief and tells us little about the story that cannot be learned elsewhere on the disc. He does, however, rightly extol the talents of Isabelle Huppert and comment on Chabrol's well-known feelings about the Vichy regime.
The trailer is more interesting than most. Though I can almost hear the cheesy overdubbed English voice that characterizes foreign film trailers in the US, this native French trailer has very little speaking at all. Images from the film play across the screen set to joyful music. And then, mid trailer, the music stops and there appears a grey image of Marie alone on the screen, tears rolling down her face. In an angry, weary voice she says, in French, "Holy Mary, full of shit. Rotten is the fruit of thy womb." Anyone with a working knowledge of the Catholic Church will immediately hear the plain reference to the Hail Mary. The reference is a powerful one, and it surely piqued the interest of many who saw the trailer in the late 1980s. Its context within the story serves only to make it more powerful.
Lastly, included in the insert are an essay by Wheeler Winston Dixon regarding Chabrol and the film and a director's filmography. The filmography is a throwaway extra in an age when most anyone could find such a list on the internet in thirty seconds flat. Nonetheless, it is interesting to look at the span of Chabrol's long career and see the diverse subjects and genres he has covered in his films. Wheeler Winston Dixon's essay is much like the interviews on the disc itself: It contains a few gems—interesting tidbits about the film, the director and the story—but much of the essay is easily and quickly forgotten.
Though a few of the extras may be easily forgotten, the film most certainly is not. Story of Women is a masterfully told tale of the life of a woman in Vichy France, which through her life explores broader issues of morality and corruption. It is a film that has been largely neglected over the past 25 years, and one can only hope that this DVD release will bring it the audience it deserves. Though not light viewing, Story of Women is an easy film to watch and to appreciate, and watch it you should. Rent it, borrow it, or add it to your collection; any way you watch it, you're in for a treat.
All parties are free to go. Home Vision Entertainment is commended for its work on this particular case, as are the director, cast, and crew.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Scene Comments by Claude Charbrol
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