Heiresses, The (1980)

Isabelle Huppert plays a Jewish working-class woman who agrees to be secretly impregnated by her rich friend’s husband in order to help the couple conceive in this morally complex tale set in the backdrop of rising Nazism in the 1930s. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,269

Dir. Marta Meszaros
1980 | Hungary/France | Drama/Romance | 101 mins | 1.85:1 | Hungarian
Not rated – likely to be M18 for mature themes and nudity

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Lili Monori, Jan Nowicki
Plot: Sylvia, a rich but sterile woman, marries Akos but needs an heir to inherit her father’s money. She bribes Irene a Jewish girl to have a child by her husband.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Source: Hungarian National Film Archive

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Relationships, Childbearing
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Isabelle Huppert in a Hungarian film?  Why not, as director Marta Meszaros cast her as Irene, a young Jewish working-class woman who agrees to be secretly impregnated by her rich friend’s husband in order to help the couple conceive so that there is an heir to the vast family fortune.  Needless to say, Irene gets a great deal of money out of this ‘charitable’ act. 

Meszaros’ regulars Lili Tomori and Jan Nowicki (also a co-screenwriter) play that couple Szilvia and Akos respectively.  As far as its subject matter is concerned, it is quite a provocative film in that it explores the moral complexity of such a planned extramarital act. 

To play pretence is perhaps the easiest as Irene assumes the identity of Akos’ wife for the duration of her pregnancy, but to accept the psychological implication of such a devious arrangement is a far harder thing to do. 

“That can’t be a woman’s fate… to live like this. Alone, without a man.”

As the strong friendship between Irene and Szilvia falters while an unorthodox ‘love triangle’ develops among the trio, The Heiresses (also known as The Inheritance) becomes a work about changing relational dynamics as they are renegotiated in tangible (i.e. transactional) and intangible (i.e. burgeoning love) ways. 

All these are set in a changing environment as well, perhaps more devastatingly so as Nazism gains traction in the late 1930s. 

After surveying a large number of works by the Hungarian director, I feel that Meszaros is truly a skilled and still underappreciated filmmaker who is always in tune with the plight of her characters, embracing them with her empathy, yet she is also acutely aware of the need to look at historical contexts, at least following after this film. 

This melding of the personal with East European history would reach its most intimate apotheosis in her own ‘Diary’ trilogy, starting with Diary for My Children (1984).

Grade: B+


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