Monday 7 October 2019

1,001 Films: "A Story of Women/Une Affaire de Femmes" (1988)

A Story of Women is yet another Chabrol movie where we're invited to wonder whether the protagonist will get away with it - though surely only the most fundamentalist of viewers would consider this particular protagonist a murderer. Its source is a 1986 book by Francis Szpiner recounting the true story of Marie-Louise Giraud, a Cherbourg woman who, in the midst of the Nazi occupation, established a brief but profitable sideline as an abortionist-for-hire, offering her services to women who couldn't face the idea of bringing another hungry mouth into their already straitened households, or who felt no urge to be a mother when the father was unlikely to return home from the front, or who'd simply fallen pregnant by gadabout German officers. For the film's remarkably (chillingly?) practical Marie (Isabelle Huppert), practising abortions is "no harder than anything else" at a moment of such strain: at least she gets a sliver or two of soap and a decent handful of notes out of it.

21st century viewers will almost immediately be set to thinking of Vera Drake, yet in contrast to Mike Leigh's insistent (though hardly unjustified) seriousness, Chabrol demonstrates a far lighter touch. The script - which Chabrol wrote with Colo Tavernier - takes the form of a compendium of stories that speak to the place of a woman in wartime, some grim, yes, but others blackly comic, most full of life. Marie longs to be a singer - at one point, she accepts a record player in lieu of payment - and so we're never more than a scene or two away from music and dancing; her peculiar narrative arc represents the closest the movies have come to a feminisation of the gangster or spiv movie template. Chabrol puts front and centre the blunt fact that his heroine came to make a killing in at least one sense. As her clients pass through, Marie's house gets notably brighter and lighter and full of fancy things otherwise unavailable under rationing: furs, jam, lipstick, even a handsome younger lover after she abandons her shellshocked, pant-shitting soldier hubby (François Cluzet).

Viewers will have to decide for themselves just how sympathetic this makes her, and in its accumulation of properly knotty, tricky ironies - not least the suggestion the War might have been a boom time for some; or, to translate, that there's money in death - the latter-day film A Story of Women most closely resembles is Verhoeven's steely-eyed Black Book of 2006. It wouldn't be a Chabrol movie without a betrayal somewhere down the line, yet even if you don't especially warm to Marie herself, you can't help but notice and savour the immense skill in Huppert's complex, multi-faceted portrayal of a woman who found an unlikely calling in life: providing her country with a service the powers-that-be weren't prepared - and, in certain places today, still aren't prepared - to acknowledge or ratify. The gut-punching closing stretch will make you consider your own position on abortion every bit as much as A Short Film About Killing made you consider your own position on the death penalty.

A Story of Women is not currently available in the UK.

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