A brilliant Isabelle Huppert headlines Chabrol’s true-story WWII drama about French women who had to deal with illegal abortion and prostitution, while bearing the brunt of legal and moral injustices.
Dir. Claude Chabrol
1988 | France | Drama/History | 108 mins | 1.66:1 | French & German
Not rated – likely to be NC16 for some sexual references and mature themes
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Francois Cluzet, Marie Trintignant
Plot: A housewife in Nazi-occupied France struggles to make ends meet when her husband returns home after being wounded in the war.
Awards: Won Volpi Cup – Best Actress & Golden Ciak – Best Film (Venice)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Women, Struggles, Injustice, Abortion, Prostitution
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
A decade after starring in Claude Chabrol’s 1978 film, Violette, Isabelle Huppert returned to work with the director again in Story of Women. She would later star in the sensational La ceremonie (1995).
I mentioned these films because Huppert won Best Actress on each occasion at Cannes and Venice working with the same director. I don’t think this has happened before at this awards level and it goes to show that the Chabrol-Huppert connection is pure gold.
In Story of Women, we get a true-story WWII drama that is powerful and heart-wrenching yet Chabrol’s slightly restrained approach allows the emotions to diffuse into its context. There is no sign of manipulation on anyone’s part, least of all Huppert, who’s brilliant as Marie, a mother of two children whom she is struggling to feed.
“How could men understand, anyway?”
Her husband, having been away for some time returns with injuries from the war, unhappy that Marie is resorting to offering abortion services to make ends meet. She also rents out a room to a prostitute to conduct her affairs.
In other words, this is indeed the Story of women, struggling to survive through illegal means as men fight themselves to death elsewhere. The town that Marie lives in is rather peaceful though, but the spectre of war does permeate now and then as women are implicated by the absence of men.
Not a spoiler: the final act of the film ironically revolves around a group of (powerful) men, as the French justice system subjects women to legal and moral injustices.
If you are going in blind, I trust that you don’t read too much about the true story of this episode until after seeing it—let Chabrol and Huppert take you through the narrative. As a film about strong women in the face of adversity, Story of Women remains to be one of the great European pictures in this tradition.