**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Claude Chabrol

Written by Chabrol and Colo Tavernier O’Hagan

With Isabelle Huppert, Francois Cluzet, Marie Trintignant, and Nils Tavernier.

In Claude Chabrol’s Story of Women, a woman has died after an abortion performed by the lead character, Marie, a housewife turned kitchen abortionist in a provincial town in World War II occupied France. The woman’s sister-in-law tells Marie that unborn babies have souls. Marie is disturbed by this assertion, and in a subsequent scene asks an acquaintance if she believes “babies in their mothers’ bellies have souls.” She receives the reply, “Do their mothers?”

This exchange is very much to the point of this film, a rich and ambiguous view of the mixed motives and multiple influences that cause people to act as they do. While the film is not primarily about abortion, and is hardly a prochoice tract, dogmatic antiabortionists will be unhappy with its notion that such supposedly eternal verities as motherly love can be compromised, even obliterated, by circumstance.

At the film’s opening we find Marie living in poverty in a tiny apartment with her two young children. Her husband Paul (Francois Cluzet), who recently fought and was wounded in the war, is away. With her husband’s unexpected return, their apartment becomes even more cramped.

Marie has helped a friend who was trying to induce an abortion in a mustard bath and, having discovered there is money to be made from the practice, begins soliciting business. Soon the family is living in a large, bright apartment and eating better. Then, without a thought to anything other than the additional money it will bring in, Marie starts renting rooms to prostitutes.

Chabrol based his film on a book about an actual woman, Marie-Louise Giraud, who was executed in France in 1943 for performing several dozen abortions. The title of his film, and of the book, is Une affaire de femmes. “Story of women” is a serious mistranslation; a closer approximation might be “women’s business.” While “story” is bland and neutral, “women’s business” would be truer to the film’s vision, in which men, as a result of the French defeat, are largely absent or negative figures. Women must deal with the vital problems of living, whether pregnancy or economic survival, on their own. The women for whom Marie performs abortions are driven by an undeniable desperation; one describes how she has spent most of her marriage in pregnancy and doesn’t even like her six existing children.

Through the words spoken by a variety of characters we learn of the mixed and often unfortunate feelings that cause them to act as they do. However, it is through Chabrol’s use of cinematic techniques that we are made most aware of the way in which their feelings and actions are determined by the society around them. Offscreen sound is often used to anticipate the entrance of a new, sometimes threatening character, while Chabrol’s camera creates a strong awareness of locale. The family’s first apartment gives one a powerful sense of claustrophobia, and we are always aware of the smallness of the rooms we are in. The walls, doors, and furniture constantly limit the characters’ freedom of action. When the family moves to a larger place, the airiness of the sunlit rooms creates a powerful contrast.

Chabrol also makes great use of the close-up, but not the mindless talking-head close-ups of video drama. His images have a cramped intensity that suggests an attempt to express a fundamental truth rather than simply to display a face. Early in the film Paul and Marie argue. Paul reads her a love letter one of his fellow soldiers received from his wife, then notes that he received none from Marie. The scene begins with a profile close-up of Paul; as he reads, the camera pans to a similar close-up of Marie. The next shot repeats the first pan from a slightly different angle. By having Paul’s close-ups precede Marie’s within the same shot, and by having his voice accompany the close-ups of her face, Chabrol creates a sense that she is not a free or autonomous human being, but rather someone on whom outside forces are constantly acting. This sort of pan is used several other times in the film, but what is extraordinary is that every close-up gives one a similar feeling; the camera puts the characters on the spot in the same way the external pressures of living, family, and the Germans constantly constrain them. Each character, under the isolating gaze of Chabrol’s lens, becomes a locus for the convergence of inner desires and outer forces.

As these forces meet in the faces we see, their expressions take on crucial importance. Fortunately, the film’s performances range from fine to superb. Huppert in particular is able to convey a rich ambiguity of feeling in a single glance. In fact, she virtually never projects a single emotion. A visible languor underlies even her most joyous moments, and at the moment of her arrest, while in pain, she manages an assertiveness. Other characters are similarly complex, their faces reminding us of the contradictory aspects of their lives.

The camera in this film never judges. Even as some characters, such as Paul, grow pathetic and detestable, we always understand the causes. Chabrol never separates effect from cause in his work, perhaps recalling the films of Jean Renoir, a key reference point for modern French cinema, with their rich multicharacter social fabrics. More generally, what is at work here is a classic difference between Hollywood and European cinema. A character in an American film acts out of his own inner conviction, a self-motivation that seems to have invented itself out of nothing. Europeans, with their very different and much longer history, are more apt to understand each character as a product of the intersection of outer forces and inner desires. Paul wants his wife, but it is because of the combination of the kind of person he is, his social milieu, and the effects of the war on him that he tries to “seduce” her by pulling her hand to his crotch. Marie doesn’t love him, but we see her feelings toward him grow increasingly negative as he ignores her speech about what she does like, and as she begins to function very differently socially as a result of her new “career.”

Much of this film’s richness and inner balance comes from Chabrol’s willingness to assume the perspective of several of his characters. Most powerful are images involving the seven-year-old Pierrot. At the end of his parents’ arguments, he is seen standing as a silent witness. It is through his eyes that we first see his father’s clothes on the table, as he opens the apartment door. Perhaps the film’s strongest images occur when, on different occasions, Pierrot observes, through a keyhole, his mother performing an abortion. The intersection in these point-of-view shots of childhood innocence being lost, voyeurism, and the seen tangle of limbs, arms, and tubes is enough to leave one mute–as Pierrot often is. One understands how these images, a dysfunctional father, and the reality of the occupation must have a strong effect on Pierrot; it should be no surprise that he identifies with the strong Germans. He picks up a coin for a Nazi soldier in a bar and reveals that he can speak some German. When asked what he’d want if given one wish, he replies that he’d want to be an executioner “because they wear that thing on their heads, and because no one knows who they are.” This is one of the few times Pierrot speaks more than a few words in the film, revealing him as a bit more of a poet–or perhaps a bit less hopeless–than the other characters in his movingly displaced desire to escape having an identity.

Chabrol’s camera allows us to see and understand the ways in which our social context determines who we are and what we become. His close-ups are composed as if the character depicted were a kind of fulcrum around which forces turn and finally meet. No one is completely free; all are defined by circumstance. Pierrot’s wish to be an executioner is a rare moment in which a character asserts independence. Yet the nature of that wish is utterly determined by what he has seen, and in his wish to lose his identity he not only partakes of the other characters’ passivity but also expresses a willingness to become a murderer.

Near the film’s end Marie is playing outside with her two children when we hear the offscreen sound of a car or truck. Soon the police, who have arrived to arrest Marie, enter the frame. We see her pained face framed between them, still expressing some measure of her selfhood. As she is led out of the frame, the camera moves down to show her two children watching her leave. Filmed from their own eye level rather than an adult’s, they receive a degree of respect rarely accorded children in films. This willingness to assume different camera perspectives is crucial to Chabrol’s antifatalistic vision. There are no absolutes, no unchangeable laws of the universe–only particular relationships that occur at particular moments in time. Still, as the camera pulled down to show the children, I could not help thinking of a remark director Douglas Sirk once made. He said he used children in his films not as symbols of innocence or of life starting anew, but as “tragedies beginning again and again.”