I think one of the reasons I like to watch French movies so much is because you get a wide swath of dynamic female characters. Women are treated like they are men in most cases in that they can have complicated motivations and emotions whereas in Hollywood most women roles are reduced to the love interest or mother characters. They may highlight the moral (or amoral) center of the film, but they are rarely given anything interesting to do. But in French movies (especially French New Wave directors’ movies) women can be like they are in real life. For instance in Story of Women, Isabelle Huppert plays an abortionist during World War II. We see her character take up this profession not because she has a higher purpose but because she wants more money. She is shallow, conceited, and always looking to make a buck. Sounds like a typical male anti-hero, right?
Marie is stuck in a ratty old apartment trying to find a way to feed two children in the middle of World War II Occupied France. Her husband is off fighting the war and she is left to her own devices. When she walks in on her neighbor trying to perform an abortion on herself, she stops her and tells her that she knows a better way to do it. When the abortion is successful, she receives a record player from the neighbor as a thank you gift. She realizes that in this social unrest climate, children are a burden a lot of women cannot deal with and can make a lot of money off of their indiscretions. The word seeps out through her prostitute friend and she is able to afford a bigger apartment, good food, and nice things. Things become complicated once her husband returns from war. He is a worn out good for nothing that can’t seem to get a good job and she is no longer attracted to him. She shoves him to the side and his male pride is wounded by the constant reminder that she is more successful than him. She takes a lover who is a Nazi collaborator and pays her maid to have a relationship with her husband. As is inevitable in an abortionists narrative, she ends up killing a woman through one of her abortions and this brings the heat down on her. The French government that is just a shadow of real government is determined to make an example out of this enterprising woman and she becomes the last woman to be publicly guillotined just for performing abortions.
Chabrol seems to be infinitely fascinated by the motives of this woman (the character was based on a real life person) but cannot seem to fully translate those motives to the screen. Marie is not a nice person, nor is she a particularly caring person (except to her kids). She gets off on having nice things and sees nothing immoral about what she does. This translates for Isabelle Huppert as looking vacant on-screen. Huppert is an emotionless actress and that works to her advantage for the most part, but I could have loved to see her break down a little bit more at the end. I didn’t feel any real sympathy for her, but that isn’t necessary in this narrative. This movie seems more like a clinical experiment than a moving personal narrative. Again this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it gives an interesting perspective on a time in France that most people want to forget. They want to forget that most people weren’t resistance fighters, but collaborators exploiting the moral gray area of occupation. It is a fascinating movie, if a little devoid of real passion or emotion.