Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Story of Women
Claude Chabrol's Story of Women is an excellent satirical drama that explores life under the German occupation of France and the Vichy government that served as puppets for the Nazis. Like Chabrol's Violette, made a decade earlier, this film is based on a true story of an infamous woman, in this case Marie Latour, who performed abortions and rented rooms to prostitutes in order to support herself and her family during the Vichy era. As in Violette, Isabelle Huppert again plays a woman whose amorality and self-interest come into conflict with a hypocritical morality that's especially difficult for women to navigate successfully.
Marie starts the film as a typical housewife of the era, scrounging and struggling to provide for her two children while her husband Paul (François Cluzet) is a prisoner of war in Germany. Paul's return doesn't change things much for Marie, since he can't hold down a job and is, understandably, interested in reuniting carnally with his wife after his time in the camps. Marie isn't interested, though, and seems to resent Paul for returning while others, like her Jewish friend Rachel and the men sent to Germany to work as an exchange for the returning prisoners, were sent away. While Paul wastes away at home, unable to work, making cutout pictures to pass the time, Marie gradually begins earning money by performing abortions — for prostitutes, women who have slept with German soldiers, and women already overburdened with children — and renting her room out during the day to her prostitute friend Lulu (Marie Trintignant).
Marie is doing what she can to make her way through a difficult and desperate time. Food is scarce, and before Marie begins bringing in a real income, the family lives in a cramped apartment and subsists on thin soup that Paul says is as bad as the food he got in the camps. Marie seems to have nothing but contempt for men, except perhaps for Lucien (Nils Tavernier), who she eventually takes as a lover, presumably because he's as much of a self-interested opportunist as she is, since he openly collaborates with the occupying Nazis. Otherwise, Marie knows, men don't understand, especially not her ineffectual husband. She justifies her actions with the rationalization that she's feeding her family and doing valuable work to help struggling women, and when she's faced with the consequences of her actions — in a powerful scene where a woman confronts Marie about the death of her sister from a botched abortion procedure — Marie is only briefly affected before she's able to move on cheerfully and blithely with her life.
The film is very much about the moral cost of surviving in a time when morality has been twisted and corrupted, and especially about the specific dilemma of women in this situation. One of the film's most emotionally intense scenes is a prolonged closeup on the face of a woman who explains to Marie why she wants an abortion: she's been pregnant six times in seven years, and resents her children, hates the way her body has been changed by these constant pregnancies, hates how she's been made to feel like an animal whose only role is bearing children and producing milk. It's an astonishing moment, and though Marie doesn't seem to have any feminist motives for her actions, there's no mistaking that her work is an expression of the helplessness of women in this time, in this system. Other women come to see Marie after sleeping with German soldiers, refusing to have children resulting from the occupation of their country — and the occupation of their bodies.
The real stakes here become especially clear in the film's powerful final act, in which Marie is arrested for her crimes and tried by a hypocritical Vichy court that's eager to make an example of her, to reassert French morality and regain some of the national self-respect lost by the country's military defeat and occupation. The judge tells Marie, with a self-satisfied smirk, that her actions reveal "a certain cynicism, a certain debasement" that is, of course, the debasement of France itself beneath the Vichy regime. The judges speak of morality while shipping out Jewish prisoners to Germany to be killed, while engaging in cowardly trades by which French prisoners of war are returned to France but other French citizens are sent to work in Germany, effectively trading one set of prisoners for another. The male tribunal that sits in judgment over Marie is eager to condemn her, eager for some sense of morality and justice, and she's an easy target: an uneducated woman who acted in self-interest to provide for herself and her family, to elevate herself above the generally miserable conditions afflicting the country.
This is a specifically Christian hypocrisy, too, and the Vichy court is intimately linked to Christianity. In the women's prison, nuns preside over the prisoners, and some of the women prisoners condemn Marie for her sins while others seem more understanding. There's cruel irony in Vichy swathing itself in Christian morality, speaking of the souls of the unborn while shipping thousands of living souls off to the death camps. In one fantastic scene, Marie spits out a bile-encrusted prayer that expresses her contempt for this religious sham: "Hail Mary, full of shit. Rotten is the fruit of your womb." Huppert delivers a fantastic performance throughout, but especially in the harrowing final act, as all the luxuries and fineries she'd accumulated throughout the film are stripped away, leaving behind a vulnerable, confused woman who doesn't entirely understand why she's being punished in this way. Marie isn't always an especially likable character, but Huppert perfectly captures the complicated psychological makeup of this woman, while Chabrol contextualizes her as a product of her times, a reflection of the warped morality instituted by the very people who ultimately punish her.