During the darker days of German occupation, Marie Latour was guillotined for crimes against the country, one of the last women to be executed in France. In The Story of Women, a dispassionate narrator recounts childhood memories of Marie Latour, his mother, with seeming detachment. Marie (Isabelle Huppert) is a young, neglected wife struggling through the austerity of life with two young children. One evening, she finds a neighbor in a mustard bath attempting to terminate a pregnancy, and aids her in the task by using a crude device. Marie’s face is inscrutable and her motivations are unclear, except perhaps that she needs the leftover bar of soap from the procedure. In gratitude, the neighbor offers her a record player. Soon, other desperate women knock on her door seeking help, and Marie’s illicit enterprise begins to thrive. She befriends a prostitute named Lucie (Marie Trintignant) and offers her services to her “friends”, which, inevitably evolves into providing rooms for their clients as well. The return of her lazy, unemployed husband, Paul (Francois Cluzet) proves to be a distraction from her lucrative, albeit accidental profession, and she attempts to remedy the situation by bribing an assistant to be his mistress. One day, a woman who had been ingesting poison to induce a miscarriage is convinced by her husband to go to Marie for help, and dies from complications. Her distraught husband commits suicide, leaving their young children to her sister’s care. In a deeply moving scene, the sister returns to Marie’s “clinic” with the orphaned children to relay the tragic news and settle the debt. In the end, Paul, incensed by his wife’s financial independence and flagrant infidelity, reports her illegal activities to the authorities, where a series of hypocrisies, resigned inaction, and political humiliation sentence her to her death.
Claude Chabrol, noted for his prolific career as a director of psychological thrillers, transcends social commentary with pathos and humanity in this deeply disturbing story of imperfect people driven by circumstance into committing desperate acts. The narrative tone is even and uninflected, logical and precise, perhaps as a consequence of his mother’s absence from his life. Marie’s countenance (extraordinarily portrayed by the luminous Huppert) is remarkably opaque and instinctive, never betraying her thoughts or emotions. Transposed to modern-day, Marie Latour’s actions no longer constitute the executionable crime for which she was condemned to die. Ultimately, only one injustice still remains, the story of a young boy who has lost his mother.
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