Adapted by Colo Tavernier and the filmmaker from a book by Francis Szpiner, Claude Chabrol’s fascinating, overwhelmingly moving Une affaire de femmes is an account of Marie Latour, one of the last women to be put to death in France, who thrived as an abortionist during the German occupation, lifting herself and her family out of poverty, and even managing to connect her husband to a job, as a dockside lookout for Allied invaders, through her lover, a collaborator. It is with perfect sincerity that Marie identifies herself as being “for the Resistance”; she even feels affronted that her husband, Paul, might think differently! But areas of one’s existence are compartmentalized, and their two children have to be fed and clothed, and Paul needs his tobacco. Thus Marie is an actual person at the center of a fictional film, and Chabrol has fun with the fact that Paul pastes cut-outs from the newspaper—a hobby that Marie derides. Eventually, of course, Marie herself is the subject of newspaper headlines and articles that Paul cuts out—a bit of continuity with which to cope with the seismographic disruption of his life once his wife’s “crimes against the state” are exposed. Throughout, Chabrol himself creates an elastic form that permits a sophisticated blend of fictional and documentary elements.
Chabrol’s achievement owes a great deal to Isabelle Huppert’s brilliant performance as Marie Latour (best actress, Venice*). Unlike Mike Leigh’s subsequent Vera Drake (2004), Chabrol’s protagonist isn’t a simpering saint; she is alive, real. While Leigh sets us up for an emotional assault, the tears come naturally—and how they come!—as we journey to the close of Chabrol’s film, an outcome largely the result of Latour’s complex humanity. Chabrol and Huppert do not “idealize” Latour by making her “endearing” or “perfect” though “unappreciated.” Latour isn’t a bogus rhetorical construct; she is possible, hence deserving of our interest and concern.
Chabrol and Huppert’s Marie isn’t Mama from I Remember Mama but an imperfect mother, a human possibility and being—a glimpse of which we get from the get-go when she administers the first of several light smacks to her young son, Pierrot. When the baby she is carrying, a girl, is praised by a neighbor, Marie responds, “I got it right with this little one.” Chabrol cuts to Pierrot, whose depth of injury at this remark, to which his mother is oblivious, is apparent to us. In their apartment, Pierrot fishes for reassurance, asking his mother, “When I was born you were happy, too?” But Marie’s response is too general, too impersonal, to reassure: “You were a boy. It is always right to have a boy.” Later, Marie will neglect both children for the sake of her illegal work or her affair, leaving them to fend for themselves during one of Paul’s (it is implied) recurrent abandonments of family or, once he has unapologetically returned, with Paul. Still, she is elsewhere shown to be an affectionate, attentive mother. Throughout, Marie Latour is recognizably, sometimes distressingly human. (Upon learning that her friend Rachel has been deported to a death camp for being Jewish, Marie, obdurate, remarks: “Rachel’s not Jewish. She would have told me.”) When her execution is imminent, even as we know the conclusion that history has predetermined, our hearts push and pull for an alternative ending.
Perhaps Marie is most “distressingly human” when her fierce defensiveness, though substantively accurate, is entirely selfish. When she is confronted with the possibility that one of her abortions has ended disastrously, resulting in the death of the woman and the suicide of her husband, she pleads life’s ambiguity as an alternative explanation to her own culpability. She is indeed correct; life is ambiguous, and Chabrol’s films are attuned in particular to this ambiguity. (See, for example, my essay on his 1959 “The Cousins.”) Thus Marie immediately defends herself, to the deceased woman’s sister-in-law, with the observation that the woman may have died as a result of reverting to her own methods of destroying the fetus (“I told her to come back if [the abortion] didn’t work!”). Even as we are drawn to her outburst of accuracy and intelligence, we recoil from its self-serving expression.
In her imperfection Marie Latour represents (as Leigh’s unreal Vera Drake never could) us. Well, she represents most of all those of us who are women or girls. Her remark to her son about a boy baby’s always being “right” refers to a patriarchal society and culture—what in fact will determine her guilt and have her guillotined. Chabrol’s film, made when abortion was no longer illegal in France, passionately defends moral and political progress against its reeling back into the beast of twisted priorities, religious barbarism, and the subordination of women’s reproductive rights to the laws and authority of men. In this powerful film, Latour marks a station along the route of feminist progress, but Latour is no feminist herself. She provides abortions to better her own life economically and that of her children, snapping from the sidelines of her essential powerlessness Greek chorus commentary (“Lose a war, and a man’s like a wounded bull!”). In what may be the film’s most remarkable moment, there she is, unusually happy, dancing by herself to a record that is playing on an unseen phonograph: a glorious image of independent female humanity. But Chabrol is a withering ironist. When he withdraws the camera, we discover that Marie is not alone. Her lover is in the room with her. Marie is dancing on an invisible male string—for him, not just for herself. What a conjoining of camera movement and mise-en-scène. This is cinema!
* In the U.S., Chabrol’s film was named the year’s best foreign language film by the New York, Los Angeles and Kansas City critics groups, and the National Board of Review. Tavernier and Chabrol won the screenplay prize at Bogota, where Huppert was named best actress, as she was at Valladolid and Sant Jordi.
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