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The Story of Chabrol

They called Claude Chabrol “the French Hitchcock,” but this was always more a marketing hook than a meaningful comparison. Alfred Hitchcock made crowd-pleasing suspense thrillers; Chabrol made vicious satires disguised as suspense thrillers. For decades, Chabrol had been crafting spiky, embittered dramas simmering with disgust for humanity in general and the French bourgeoisie in specific.

And in 1988, he took aim at Nazi-occupied France. That was impressive enough, but the bullet he fired was a tangled, M.C. Escher-like self-referential puzzle surfing waves he’d set in motion two decades earlier.

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First, a quick history lesson. In 1940, facing imminent defeat to Nazi Germany, France capitulated and installed a puppet fascist state headed by former war hero Philippe Ptain. Because his reactionary government was based in Vichy, instead of Paris, the term “Vichy France” refers to those four nightmare years when France chose to turn itself into a Nazi satellite.

Among the many things the Vichy regime did to mollify the German occupiers was to promise that the Vichy State Tribunal would execute a certain number of criminals. The problem was, that “certain number” exceeded the number of actual criminals. So, having executed all the hardened criminals and Communists, the Tribunal broadened its jurisdiction. They roped in retired and otherwise unqualified jurists to stock its benches, and started hunting for more people to execute.

(Let’s pause here a moment. There are certain politicians who routinely invoke comparisons to Nazism whenever they encounter dissenting viewpoints. Let’s just remember that real Nazism involved the routine slaughter of other human beings. There’s a difference.)

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Enter a young woman named Marie-Louise Giraud. She performed back-alley abortions. What she was doing was illegal, and she was pretty much destined to get into trouble over it. In Vichy France, it got her beheaded. Giraud was the last woman guillotined in France, and her story fascinated screenwriter Francis Szpiner.

Szpiner researched the case, and focused on the cruel irony of a state that decided to make an example of how women ought not say no to being mothers, but did so by depriving Giraud’s own children of their mother. His efforts resulted in the 1988 film Une Affaire de Femmes(Story of Women, in which writer Szpiner stayed close to the historical facts while giving director Chabrol an opportunity to bring his peculiar sensibility to the material.

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Chabrol directed the film with a careful eye to how compositions and editorial rhythms influence audience reactions. He actively sought what he called a “rough look,” to avoid compositions that seemed too orderly or artificially composed, and thereby heighten the naturalism and allow his camera to creep into just the right position for a particular effect without the audience perceiving the subtle manipulations. The impression is one of almost careless inattention to style, but that impression was created with meticulous diligence.

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Isabelle Huppert stars as Marie, a mother of two small children struggling to make ends meet in a mean world. Her husband is away at a German work camp, as are all eligible men. Food and drink are rationed. Her best friend disappears in the night and is taken to a concentration camp.

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In this post-apocalyptic ruin, women take work where they can find it, like knitting…or prostitution. She tries option A but doesn’t think much of the money; she doesn’t have the temperament for the option B, but has a good friend who seems to thrive at it. Marie realizes that hookers need a safe, inexpensive place to conduct their business–and that the proprietor of such a safe haven could make some tidy money without much risk. And so Marie starts renting out a spare room.

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There’s something else. Along the way, Marie discovers an aptitude for performing abortions. There’s a high demand for the service, and the money is excellent, but compared to playing madam to some well-behaved sex workers, being an abortionist represents a whole different category of personal risk. And it is this second career that eventually brings down the greatest punishment on her.

But punishment for what? She’s breaking the law, of course, and Story of Women does touch briefly on the larger debate of the morality of abortion (mindful of the contemporary debates on abortion, as urgent and unresolved in 1988 as in 1943 as in the present day). More to the point, she’s a feminist threat to a world of men. Marie ignores and neglects her son while doting on her daughter. She bristles in loathing at the touch of her husband and complains how women are perpetually enslaved to the needs of men. She funds improvements to her lifestyle by defying patriarchal sex roles and empowering the women around her. And she cultivates the ruthless demeanor of a talented businessman–she hires a maid to do the household chores she despises, and then pays that woman to sleep with her husband (how’s that for delegating!).

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When she is arrested and put on trial, the film suddenly shifts gears and transitions into a courtroom drama. To emphasize the aesthetic disruption, Chabrol introduces some unexpected voice-over narration by Marie’s son, reminiscing about these events from the point of view of the future. Up until this point, Marie has been depicted as a complex figure, one that alienates the audience as well as invites empathy. There is room for the audience to dislike her, even vilify aspects of her. But once the film moves into its endgame, Marie becomes a victim to much darker forces. The callous hypocrites who calmly sentence her to death for her crimes while blithely ignoring the social conditions that invited, supported, and justified her actions are the true villains.

You could marvel that it took Chabrol so long to get around to making an anti-Vichy film. But you could also note that he had been gunning for the Vichystes all along and just hadn’t been so blunt before. In fact, Story of Women should feel very familiar. He had made this movie at least twice before.

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Almost ten years to the day before making Story of Women, Chabrol made Violette Noziere. It was another true-life crime story, set in the past, starring Isabelle Huppert as a notorious figure accused of crimes against family values. Weirdly, Violette Noziere wasn’t just made 10 years earlier, it was set 10 years earlier. Noezire was a young bourgeois woman in the mid 1930s who poisoned her parents (her mother survived) and stole their money to give to her lover. On trial, she defended her actions, saying her father had sexually abused her for years (although Chabrol’s wickedly entertaining adaptation of the story never commits to any definitive answer of what motivated Violette).

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Violette Noziere established a structural pattern: Isabelle Huppert as a protagonist who hates her family and yearns for escape; she flirts with prostitution and engages in petty violations of the law; her personal saga becomes entwined with larger issues of gender equality and female empowerment; she is arrested and thrown in jail where she is a misfit with the prison population; the state tries her case in an effort to not only prosecute her specific crimes but to get to some larger political point. Story of Women rehabbed that structure, tore down the facade and built a new movie on its foundations. Both films use the same ingredients to get to very different dinners.

This is not to say that Chabrol was simply peeking back to 1978 when he made Story of Women. Longtime Chabrol fans may well come to this finale with a different sense of deja vu–back in 1962, Chabrol’s Landru adapted the true story of France’s so-called “Bluebeard,” who kept himself fed through WWI by marrying an array of wealthy women who he murdered and burned (and let’s note the fact that Landru was tried in 1922, Violette in 1933, and Marie-Louise in 1943–sense a pattern?).
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Charlie Chaplin turned the Landru story into Monsieur Verdoux, a film whose black comedy turned many audiences off. Chabrol’s Landru is equally bleak and equally comic, and was also treated with critical and popular revulsion. The critics who had hailed Chabrol’s early New Wave classics like Les Cousins balked at the Hollywood-style gloss and candy colors he brought to a tale of a serial killer. Landru finishes in the same vein as Story of Women, with the character taking a stand at his trial as a political martyr.

Story of Women is a more accomplished retread of familiar ground, and its shifts in tone are handled more deftly. It also benefits immeasurably from the deft performance of Isabelle Huppert, in her second of seven roles for Chabrol, and her second Cesar Award nomination.

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This was the secret of the film’s success. Story of Women takes a person and explores every little detail and bit of her persona, and yet that intimate individuality is also mapped onto an epic scale, the life of one singular woman as a study in the corruption of an entire society. The personal as the political. Chabrol’s bluntest assault on the Vichy era succeeds because of Huppert’s sympathetic portrayal of a messy, contradictory, and ambiguous woman. This may be called Story of Women, but it is the story of a woman. And all the better for it.

5 Responses The Story of Chabrol
Posted By kingrat : November 14, 2015 4:47 pm

David, I think the English title is a mistranslation. WOMEN’S BUSINESS would be a much better title. I’m a big fan of the film. It’s so easy to imagine the Susan Hayward version (innocent woman unfairly condemned to death) or the Susan Sarandon version (noble feminist done wrong). Chabrol has nothing to do with such pieties and sentimentalities.

Isabelle Huppert is unsympathetic throughout, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned–neither Hayward nor Sarandon would ever have agreed to that–which doesn’t mean that she should have been put to death.

Is there any chance of LANDRU becoming available on DVD? This has been one of the titles that has fallen through the cracks.

There’s a case to be made for Chabrol as ultimately a better filmmaker than Truffaut or Godard, and UNE AFFAIRE DES FEMMES helps to make it.

Posted By Emgee : November 14, 2015 8:34 pm

Her crime was probably seen at the time as offending both Catholic sensibilities as well as the Nazi worship of motherhood, so her end was inevitable.

“almost careless inattention to style.” A lot of current directors could learn from that, whose visual style often takes precedence over content.

Chabrol a better filmmaker than Godard, i’ll second that. But better than Truffaut? That’s quite a claim.

Posted By David Kalat : November 14, 2015 11:21 pm

I’ll happily second the idea that Chabrol is better than Truffaut and Godard. Let’s just consider that debate settled, no need for further discussion!

As for LANDRU, that one’s tricky. Pretty much all of the Chabrol releases on DVD and Blu-Ray in the US and UK have been through MK2, but MK2 doesn’t own the rights to Landru. Because of that status, it’s been released overseas in places like France and Spain, but there’s no commercial imperative for a big media company to take a flyer on a weird and largely unknown film with at best a niche audience.

If you’ve got region-free capabilities, though, you can import a disc through Amazon. It won’t have English subtitled but you can find them online and sync them using VLC, so it’s doable with a little effort.

Posted By Autist : November 15, 2015 4:42 pm

Yeah, but Eric Rohmer was better than all three. Combined.

Posted By swac44 : November 16, 2015 2:32 pm

Sometimes French films show up on Amazon.ca due to the sizeable French-speaking audience in Quebec and elsewhere, but unfortunately, the only copy of Landru I could find was a Spanish import that has Spanish subtitles, but no English.

I’ve never done the VLC thing, is it affected at all by the difference between NTSC and PAL?

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