Une affaire de femmes (The Story of Women). To be honest, I haven't watched a ton of French films although I love them and I was even a French major in college. During a one year stint at graduate school (I couldn't hack it), I took a course in French culture through film. I loved seeing how societal attitudes changed through the years and how they were reflected in films.
But I digress, as I am wont to do. A boyfriend introduced me to Une affaire des femmes, probably 20 years ago now. He said the first time he saw it, it left a pit in his stomach. While I can't say anything nice about the boyfriend because having dated him still leaves a pit in my stomach, I will say I'm glad I saw the film.
The movie is loosely based on the real-life of Marie-Louise Giraud who was one of the last women to be guillotined in France in 1943 for performing abortions. In the film, Isabelle Huppert plays Marie LaTour who discovers that an easy way to make money in Vichy, France is to perform abortions. Now, I know what you are thinking: Vera Drake. But it's a far cry from that. In fact, there isn't an ounce of sentimentality in the film. Chabrol uses the fact that we know what's going to happen to Marie LaTour as a way to distance us from the story and to let us decide how we feel about this women.
But oh! The film covers so much more than that! Marie LaTour isn't a sympathetic or unsympathetic woman; she is at the same time warm, loving, sly, business-like, cold and opportunistic. What would you do if under a totalitarian regime your kids were starving? It reminds me of a line in Le chagrin et la pitie, a documentary that explored the collaboration between the French and the Vichy state. A farmer states quite plainly (and I'm paraphrasing): We did what we had to do to survive.
Does it make it right? No. Does it make it real? Yes.
I believe, if I remember my course in French Film correctly, that it was this documentary, The Sorrow and The Pity (which figures prominently in Annie Hall), that ushered in a new consciousness in French films. No longer were film makers castrated by the point of view that EVERYONE in France was part of the resistance. Of course, French television banned this documentary until 1981, perhaps they were the last hold-outs of the belief that, yes, EVERYONE in France was in the resistance.
A precursor to Marie LaTour can be found in Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien. Another story about a young naive person, who seizes opportunity to make his life better under Vichy France. I think the reason that Chabrol's film hits me harder is that the main character is a women. Of all the World War II movies, not many are centered around women. And even fewer, look at their lives in such a cool, objective way as this movie does.
What this movie does, and why I think it stays with me, is that it asks difficult questions but doesn't answer them. And it does it in such a brilliant way that you are caught up into the story without realizing the depth of the questions until the movie is over, leaving you with a pit in your stomach (and not from your boyfriend).
Adieu, Monsieur Chabrol et merci.