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Film Review: Une Affaire de Femmes (1988) aka A Story of Women

Based on a true story which occurred in 1940s France, Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert teamed up yet again for Une affaire de femmes (A Story of Women) - a director-leading lady dream team. This bleak but always fascinating offering from 1988 raises a similar moral dilemma presented in their other collaborations such as Violete Noziere (1978) and La Cérémonie (1995) wherein the viewer may wonder where and with whom his/her sympathies ought lie.

Huppert plays downtrodden housewife Marie, a woman struggling to make ends meet in a Paris slum during the German occupation. Like the milieu in which the Nozieres found themselves this is a life of striving to retain a modicum of respectability against seemingly insurmountable odds. Grime and poverty abound. The beautiful Huppert, a consummate professional, somehow manages to look plain and even unattractive – no mean feat.

When a neighbour implores Marie to help with an abortion, a novice herself in such matters, she agrees to carry out the amateur procedure. Soon enough, more women approach in search of the same service. With her ‘skills’ in demand Marie is assisting women in need who would otherwise bring an unwanted child into the world, many of whom would have been born out of wedlock with husbands fighting at the front.

When feckless husband Paul (Francois Cluzet) comes home, discharged from war, Marie shows a harder side to her character than hitherto revealed. Despite his weak character, her rejection of him seems cold and somewhat unjustified. At this point, sympathy may swing against her. And it’s this constant rollercoaster of emotions towards the leading lady that makes this such a riveting film. Yes, Paul is next to useless, but what happened to ‘for better or worse?’

Meeting a prostitute in need of a room to entertain her clients presents an opportunity for Marie to provide for her two young children. The extra income allows her to give her children jam on their bread – a rare treat which delights them and their doting mother. Chabrol seems to be posing a tricky question here: how far would you go to provide for your children?

An abortion that goes awry leaves Marie in shock but as the sole breadwinner, the need to provide appears to trump any moral questions. Hungry kids don’t understand such complexities. Once again, the pendulum may swing back in Marie’s favour. There are no easy answers in this film.

Meanwhile, Marie has started an affair with the dynamic and handsome Lucien (Nils Tavernier) even if she knows such a relationship can never last. For Marie has a certain joie de vivre, a spirit that yearns for better things. Her ambition is to sing. She loves to sing and dance, but her vibrant personality has been suppressed, her life having become one of never-ending drudgery. Perhaps then the viewer can forgive her flirtation; perhaps not.

Paul though passive by nature finally decides enough is enough. His decision to inform the authorities, a peevish, spiteful act is one of the film’s more shocking moments setting into motion a chain of events that will end in tragedy. Marie’s arrest and subsequent trial has an air of awful inevitability about it. The system wants blood.

It’s quite difficult watching this film head towards its gory conclusion. Knowing that events depicted here really did happen to Marie-Louise Giraud in July 1943 is enough to make the hairs on your neck stand up (Sometimes only a cliché will do). France – La Republique – wished to ‘make an example’ of Madame Giraud, a bloodthirsty desire that sealed her fate.

Overall, this is a much more powerful film than Violete Noziere and La Cérémonie. It packs a punch, takes the wind out of one’s sails (another cliché. They’re catching). The only crumb of comfort that can be drawn is to hope that the hard-hearted men complicit in this travesty went onto a place where their suffering far outstripped that of the film’s complex and undeniably flawed heroine.