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Une affaire de femmes (Story of Women):Crime Drama, Women and Claude Chabrol! by Vandana Kumar

I am writing my third article that revolves around Claude Chabrol-the undisputed master of the poetry of murder and one of the founding members of the French New Wave. A friend told me – “Your fascination for the director is soon transforming into an obsession”. Whenever I think I have covered everything he offers in an earlier article, something so different turns up in another film I watch, compelling me to write. There are things so distinct in the different phases of his cinema. The stamp of the auteur is there as much as there are significant departures in Une affaire de femmes (Story of women – 1988). This isn’t just another murder mystery with a deadly atmosphere from Chabrol’s staple. Une affaire de femmes could be clubbed in the category of the auteur’s films that were essentially stories of women. The title of the film also literally means that. In the words of the most commercially successful New Wave Director – “In the end, I am only interested in the characters and the more I go on, the more I am only interested in the female characters”.

Think of the director’s most remembered films and you will find them revolve around women. From Violette Nozière (1978) to Madame Bovary (1991), Betty (1992) and La Cérémonie (1995) to name just a few. It was these films that helped Chabrol in getting rid of the ‘Poor man’s Hitchcock’ tag that critics gave him for a lot of his initial films. A dimension to the director that is obviously different from Alfred Hitchcock is this very study of women and their complexities within his crime stories.

Isabelle Huppert plays the protagonist in ‘Une affaire de femmes’ and the film turned out to be yet another successful actor–director collaboration. While films like Chabrol’s ‘Le Boucher’ (1970) and ‘La Cérémonie’ (1995) are all about crimes in the context of bourgeois repression in village communities and urban families, ‘The story of Women’ is based particularly in the context of occupied France during World War II which gives it an added real context. It is a hair raising 1 hour, 48 minutes tale revolving around the life of Marie-Louise Giraud. She was the last woman to be executed by the Guillotine in France in the Cherbourg region in July 1943. Her crime? – performing as many as 27 abortions illegally.

The character of Marie is exasperated with her fate and plays a frustrated 1940’s housewife with her husband away and serving the army in Vichy France. She is desperate to better her lot and can’t stand the sight of her own poverty. Enterprising and unscrupulous, she learns from a neighbour how to perform sterile abortions at home. The demand for such abortions grows and it brings out both the loneliness of army wives and the position of Catholicism on abortions, which very sternly looked down on them. Even within marriages it was unthinkable to put a stop to the number of children. She starts to make a considerable amount of money through these illegal abortions and then her ambition gets the better of her. The family move to a bigger place, and she starts lending her apartment to women. These women either want a place for their sexual rendezvous or are prostitutes. Marie promises both discretion and privacy.

Marie’s relationship with her husband is important in the film and brings out the gender divide and hypocrisy of these times very starkly. Paul Latour, played by François Cluzet is the absentee husband in the initial part of the film when Marie establishes her unofficial designation as the abortion expert. The nation is going through a crisis and it’s falling into the hands of the Nazis. This is essentially seen as a blow to its pride. France, as far as grammar goes, is ‘la (The definite article ‘The’ in French before a feminine noun) France’. But make no mistake – the ego and nature is fully masculine. So, Paul Latour is seen as a pathetic miserable man on his return. One, who doesn’t find any problem with the couple’s financial status and is simply happy to be back with his wife and two very young and impressionable children. The wife is the one who has adopted whatever questionable means she could but has ensured they move up in life. So, it is a woman who becomes the provider but the inherent masculinity that continues to drag in a threatened nation-state only offers her so-called “illegitimate” means.

The man has fallen from grace and his masculinity is in question along with that of the nation. Marie simply refuses to sleep with her husband apparently because her household chores have denuded her sexual desires. The audience is not told why the mother of his two children, who till then wasn’t in any other clandestine relationship, would do such a thing. Naturally like many of the women who knocked on her doors for abortions, she too must have felt the long period of abstinence. One close-up of Isabelle Huppert and you know you are not meant to be given explanations. As time progresses, Marie herself gets involved with someone else and openly at that – with complete disregard of the children around. To assuage her guilt and to get her husband of her back, she hints that the maid should satisfy her husband’s needs. Things spiral out of control and finally she is reported to the government and the last part of the film is the built up to the guillotine.

‘Une affaire de femmes’ is often considered a sequel to ‘Violette Nozière’. Both had Fascism as the backdrop. Interestingly it is ten years that separate not just the films (1978-88) but even the real-life crimes that the films are based around (1933-43). The nascent fascism of ‘Violette Nozière’ became a full-fledged Vichy state by the time of ‘Une affaire de femmes. A prominent difference however was while the politics of the time remains a backdrop in the sensational murder case of ‘Violette Nozière’, in ‘Une affaire de femmes’ it is a direct face-off with the fascism of the times.

As the story progress we see the state for what it is. It is making a scapegoat of the protagonist and projecting her as a larger-than-life villain for something that is essentially an individual trait of greed and an error in judgment. Is it really an “error” or expression of “free will”? But is the will “really” free? Marie Latour’s desire for quick money leads to some bad decisions and some questionable choices. That she errs is symbolic of letting the nation down. The punishment of sacrificing her life is disproportionate to the crime she commits and one that makes even those who disapproved of her ways, sympathize with her. The nation is intent on using her as a deterrent. The government felt that the French society had been humiliated by German occupation itself. The least the French society could do was keep its morals intact and cleanse society of all the malpractices and debauchery. In doing so they hoped to heal a broken nation.

Women were repressed while husbands stationed away from home in the army had the liberty to visit prostitutes. Women were supposed to raise the babies, make doilies, and attend to household chores. The number of women who came in secretly to Marie Latour for abortions while husbands were away, show us the loneliness they felt. In one of the early scenes, a woman who brings in another for an abortion to Marie Latour, says by way of explanation “her husband has been a prisoner for two years … some women can't stand loneliness”. The fact that the women were not allowed to abort babies made the gender scales skewed. Women had to refrain from being promiscuous, unfaithful, or just giving in to desires. The state with its masculine toxic overdose forgot the fact that wants are equal for both sexes.

‘Une affaire de femmes’ holds a very important place when films depicting the period of French resistance in the country’s cinema are discussed. François Truffaut’s period drama like ‘Le Dernier Métro’ also comes to mind. Claude Chabrol’s fascination with the Occupation was perhaps only marginally less than his fascination for crime thrillers with an atmosphere. One could connect it perhaps to that fact that both his parents worked in the Parisian underground resistance. At the tender age of 4, young Chabrol was packed off, to be far away from the dangers of his parents’ resistance life. He spent much of the war period in the country village of Sardent (in the Creuse region). He brought out the hypocrisy of the Vichy period in some way or the other in all the crime dramas he made of the period. In ‘Une affaire de femmes’ Marie Latour was a victim of the French Vichy Government that sermonized moral purity even as it rounded up Jews for the German concentration camps.

As the movie progresses so does our sense of foreboding. From a quick buck through an abortion, to lending a room for sexual activities, to Madame Latour starting an affair – you can sense something is going to go very wrong. Her daring increases and she starts ignoring her son. She is blatantly uncaring about the fact that her young impressionable child has seen her with a lover. In one of the initial scenes in the film, a neighbor comments on the daughter’s good looks and Madame Marie Latour says she ‘got it right the second time’. The dejected insecure son asks his mother if she is not happy with him. She says that it’s great enough that you are a boy. A woman needs her looks for survival is the implication. This sets the tone for the film. She is managing without the man in the house, and she might do anything it takes (using her charm and beauty included) to make a living. The resentment of the son builds up and he always feels that she neglected him. He doesn’t understand her gender games. He simply wants his mother to love him. She reverses the maternal drama role by neglecting not only the son, but also the father who returns home from service. Just like in a classic film noir there will be repercussions somewhere and here it assumes proportions with national implications.

Initially as the film starts, the character played by Isabelle Huppert seems like one among the many others she has played – ambiguous. Isabelle Huppert has effortlessly essayed many a role using the special advantage she has – a face and eyes that completely escape audience scrutiny. The character she plays in ‘Une affaire de femmes’ doesn’t evoke much support for her dubious and illegal activities that could lead to death. She clearly has no formal training to abort. One does not take a moral position at this stage-of agreeing or disagreeing with the character of Madame Marie Latour. One is plain fascinated by how Madame Marie Latour is managing to pull off all this secret money making. The sympathy for her comes when she is reported to the state. Her personal crimes seem so diminutive in comparison to the state response and punishment. Isabelle Huppert has played the dark side many a times but usually without remorse or sorrow. Here her role is a departure. The audience’s heart goes out to her in the final built up to the guillotine – helpless, pleading and hoping that the case will go in her favor. The only other major role where one has seen Isabelle Huppert as helpless and consumed with a sense of dread, fright and remorse in the end is that in the classic role of Emma. That was Gustave Flaubert’s character ‘Emma’ in an adaptation of ‘Madame Bovary’ by Chabrol.

Once Marie Latour’s crimes come crashing down on her and till the time she is guillotined, is the part that stands out in the film. The maternal drama and the political drama merge into a heart wrenching finish. She is summoned to Paris for a state hearing. En route Marie is poker faced, trying to peep out of the police vehicle, just to catch a glimpse of Paris.

The haunting that builds up to the end reminds one of Carl Dryer’s 1928 silent film “la Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” (The passion of Joan of Arc). The trial fills you with dread, pity, and unease as you know there is only one ending possible.

From the Madame Latour one couldn’t fathom she is this helpless woman now – asking herself (and the system) what she did wrong. Of all the times she talks to herself – what lingers are things like her saying that it is easy to have clean hands if you are rich … “Who would look after my children? The ones passing judgment have maids”. Another time she says, “If it wasn't for the abortion money my children would be eating the sort of food I get in prison”. My mind went back to a scene very early in the film. After performing one of the abortions and inserting the instrument in the vagina of the helpless girl on the floor, her question was “Can I keep the left-over soap?”

Chabrol highlights Marie Latour’s problematic relationship with her son – her neglecting him and conducting the illegal abortions and personal liaisons in front of him. Her son also witnessed her inexplicably spurning her husband’s romantic and sexual overtures. Chabrol adds two important layers. Marie is caught by the Government deliberately at a time when she is settling into this business and wants to pursue her interest in singing. What could be better punishment than to clip her wings when she wants to soar high? Further for dramatic impact, Chabrol gives the son ‘Pierrot’, the introduction of the last portion of the film through a voice–over. He is the adult son looking back at the events that led to his mother’s death.

This blood curdling tale of illegal abortions during the occupation was another success for the Claude Chabrol – Isabelle Huppert duo. While she won the best actress award at the Venice film festival in 1988, the film got a nomination at the Golden Globe in the category of Best Foreign Film.

There is a lot that lingers as the movie comes to an end. No one takes you away from one dimensional morality while trying to fathom his women characters, as does Claude Chabrol. When France’s most prolific director of the French New Wave, takes an ambiguous and complex character from a very controversial period of history, he ends up making a strong political statement on motherhood, authority, and fascist state control in the period of the collaborationist French Government – all ostensibly while making a crime drama.

Vandana Kumar is a Middle School French teacher in New Delhi. An educator with over 20 years of experience, she is also a French translator and recruitment consultant, internationally published poet and cinema lover.

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