Message or Muddle? Story of Women (1988)


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The first thing we see is Marie Latour (Isabelle Huppert) playing with her children. She’s an attentive mother and, we soon find out, is surviving during wartime as best she can. There is not a lot of money for food and clothes, much less bills and upkeep. One morning, after waking up her children, she heads downstairs to retrieve her coffee mill from a neighbor only to find her sitting in a tub of mustard water. When Marie asks why, her neighbor tells her it’s because she is pregnant and with her husband soon shipping off, they don’t want the baby. Marie tells her mustard water won’t work and takes it upon herself to perform the abortion. Has Marie done this before? When asked, she indicates she hasn’t and simply wonders how hard can it be. That is how Story of Women, the movie based on the real life exploits of Marie-Louise Giraud, begins and by its end we are left without a clear statement from the film as to where her life stands. Were we given a message, or simply left in a muddle? The short answer for me is neither. The long answer to come is a bit more involved.

One of the problems with Story of Women for some critics, as evidenced by Roger Ebert calling it a “morality play without a conclusion,” was that many felt a movie with such controversial subject matter at its center, that of an amateur abortionist in occupied France, should be making a definite statement, for or against, about the topic at hand. That it does not is because it is not a message movie, but a movie about a woman doing what she can to survive with cold indifference to how that is achieved. It is also, as the title suggests, a movie about women in general. That is to say, women without power or means still finding a way to survive in a war-torn and male dominated world, the story of many women even today. But that’s the English title. The French title refers instead to the affairs of women, as in their dealings, not liaisons. That’s another clue that Chabrol’s movie is intended more as a business like look at the subject. But specifically, it is about Marie Latour and despite what people may wish going into the film, she is neither heroine nor villain. At times, she appears almost sympathetic, loving and kind, but most of the time, cold and empty.

Some of the clues to her character come early and let the audience in on her motivations. Her offer to help her neighbor with an abortion would seem to be done out of neighborly obligation, not kindness. Her blank expression when she says that mustard water won’t work betrays any semblance of sympathy for her neighbor. Rather, she simply thinks she can do it better and would like the chance to try. The whole process seems like an afterthought. As if somewhere between getting the coffee mill and going back upstairs to dress the children, she thought, “I bet I can do this. Why not try?”

It’s that indifferent attitude that comes off as shocking under the circumstances. A great many lesser filmmakers would be playing our heartstrings at the outset. The neighbor in the tub would be crying while goopy music underscored the scene. Marie would grab her hand, grit her teeth and through tears of her own tell her, “I can help you. We can make this work! But I’m so sorry. So very sorry it has to happen.” And so on. Instead, we get the neighbor herself laying on the floor during the abortion chuckling about how this is the same position she was in when she got pregnant. The whole thing is played so purposely without drama that the lack drama itself becomes the drama.

Later, after the abortion is successful, Marie’s neighbor gleefully tells her the details and gives her a record player as a gift. Marie’s reaction? She’s thrilled! She’s got a record player now and we can immediately see the wheels turning. More abortions, more gifts. In fact, why not just charge for it?


More clues to Marie’s nature arise when she meets up with Lulu (Marie Trintignant), a prostitute who kids Marie for being a squeaky clean housewife. Marie can’t resist bragging that she isn’t, that she performs abortions and she can help Lulu’s prostitute friends for a fee. It becomes clear that Marie is beginning to see her role not just as a moneymaker but a prestige position as well. She’s important to the prostitutes, wives and girlfriends desperate to terminate their pregnancies. And when her husband returns home, we see a cruelty towards him that he feels he doesn’t deserve.

He comes back with what used to be called “Shell Shock” (post traumatic stress disorder) and she ridicules his manhood immediately. When she has to clean his pants from one of his many accidents, she mocks him. She gets a nice apartment and abandons him for a man more suited to her needs. Her business grows and her lifestyle grows with it. When it all comes crashing down as she is sentenced to death for the abortions she committed, there is no catharsis, no release. She marches off to the guillotine and the movie ends. It is understandable that many people watching thought, “What was that all about?”


Movies with controversial subject matter have become well known as message movies and the worst of them exhaust every cliché available until all we’re left with is a series of symbolic stand-ins for the audience to match up according to the subject being addressed. Made for TV movies about physical afflictions, diseases and addictions have trained us to wait for the big finale that will leave us crying and the characters finally awakened to their problems, or guilts, or… whatever. All we know is, if there is a controversial subject at the heart of the story, we’re all going to learn a lesson by the credits. When that doesn’t happen, we may not immediately process it well. Such is the case with Story of Women.

Claude Chabrol, so well known for his penchant for the macabre that he earned the nickname “The French Hitchcock,” (along with Henri-Georges Clouzot), traveled down a different path for this film but only in the details of the story. On the whole, it fits in perfectly well with his catalog. In another Chabrol film with Isabelle Huppert, La Ceremonie, Chabrol seems little interested offering philosophical theories as to the evil nature of Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire, instead simply focusing on what they do and how, when it’s all done, they just walk away (well, one of them at least). Chabrol more than many filmmakers, preferred to examine the actions of people on the fringes of societal acceptance and then roll the credits. He wasn’t into giving you a message or moral at the end. That some, like Roger Ebert, expected it here, possibly because it was based on a real person, is not the fault of the movie, but the viewers in question. Story of Women is a powerful work of Chabrol’s and that is in no small part because it treats the subject much the way Chabrol treated every other subject: morbid fascination. And when he’s done, the credits roll, but the movie will stay with you long after.

Greg Ferrara

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1 Response Message or Muddle? Story of Women (1988)
Posted By swac44 : July 2, 2017 9:39 am

Powerful film, perhaps even more timely now than when it was made. Huppert is amazing, and I like that fact that she doesn’t wear her emotions, or motivations, on her sleeve. There’s always so much going on beneath the surface in Chabrol’s films, or he knows which parts of the slate to leave blank so that the viewer can draw their own conclusions.

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