Story of Women (1988)

Reid, 15. January 2008, 19:08

Dir. Claude Chabol
Starring: Isabelle Huppert
8/10

There’s a lot of film reviews I need to catch up on, but I want to complete this one because it is a film that I would recommend–especially Penny and Grace. This would be a good film to talk about afterward. In the next section, I’ll give a little more specifics without giving away spoilers.

**
There are some films where the main character is so interesting that the depiction of the character is the story. That’s true of this film. Isabelle Huppert, who plays the lead character, gives one of the best performances I’ve seen. If you’re curious about in seeing the all-time best performances, just stop reading and go see the film.

The plot of the film involves a woman, Marie (Huppert), and her children in occupied France during WWII. The husband is off at war, and the woman resorts to questionable means of making money. What makes this movie so interesting is the complexity of the character created by the filmmakers. (More later). If you’ve seen the film Vera Drake and liked it, I’d recommend seeing this. Imelda Staunton gives a good performance in that film, but Huppert’s performance the character created by her and Chabrol is superior in terms of complexity and richness.

***
As I was watching the film, several adjectives came to mind to describe Marie–innocent, childlike, narcissistic, amoral, cold, mentally retarded–but none of them seemed to fit just right. She doesn’t seem well-educated or very intelligent at times. (She has trouble spelling, and has difficulty helping her children, 4-10 years old, in their school work.) On the other hand, she displays a level of shrewdness in terms of money-making (e.g. lending out rooms to prostitutes).

This is the main character that Chabrol uses to explore social issues like abortion, specifically, and attitudes of social liberals and conservatives in general. What’s so good is the way Chabrol avoids portraying characters and situations in black-and-white terms. Marie is someone that is not easy to love or simply despise (but that would also depend on your position on these social issues.) She’s very cold and insensitive to her son. For example, she remarks that her daughter is the perfect one in front of her son. She also spends more time with the daughter. On the other hand, she doesn’t a very responsible parent to both children, in one scene sending them out to play in the rain while she goes out to have fun.

But there’s a key scene that would be interesting to observe the reactions from viewers. This is the scene where a lady visits Marie because her sister died from an abortion performed by Marie–leading to the suicide of the father and several children without parents. However, the lady comes not to condemn Marie, but to pay her the money still owed to her. Marie accepts the money without remorse and returns to frolick with a lover (She’s married.) in another room. The lady also happens to be religious and she displays a mixture of judgment and pity on Marie.

What makes this scene (and others like it in the film) is the way Maria seems totally unaware of how inappropriate her reaction is. She is without remorse and doesn’t seem to be aware that she should feel any. It’s a kind of childlike innocence that moves into an amorality. But “childlike innocence” doesn’t seem to be an apt description as most children have a pretty strong sense of right or wrong at least at a certain age. Huppert performance is believeable and convincing, which is something.

Another aspect of the film that I would find interesting is different viewers’ reactions to the way Marie treats her husband. On one level, she is pretty callous and cruel to her husband. On the other hand, one could argue that she doesn’t love her husband so she doesn’t have to give in to his sexual needs. Yet, she could be a little more sensitive as well. (At one point she goes so far as asking a hired housemaid to sleep with her husband, arranging to pay the maid for this.) The husband, on the other hand, allows himself to be treated by Marie this way, lacking the backbone and self-respect to tell Marie off or simply leave the relationship.

There’s also some historical context that I’m not sure I fully appreciate, specifcally the fact that the French government felt bad about their cowardice towards the Germans and took this out on sentencing Maria to death (because of her abortions and renting rooms to prostitutes).

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