Like any good Frenchman, Claude Chabrol had to tackle the German occupation at some point. How he did it, in 1988's unfortunately-titled Story of Women, is a matter of odd trivia. For his big WWII movie, Chabrol took up the issue of abortion.
Isabelle Huppert stars as Marie, an obviously oppressed housewife whose husband is off at war. Marie dreams of things far beyond possibility -- she lives in occupied France yet wants to be a professional singer -- but nothing is worse than the arrival of her husband (François Cluzet) back from the war, suffering from shell shock. This isn't a happy homecoming. This merely means another person to feed on limited rations -- and one who soils his shorts repeatedly.
Marie quickly goes on the hunt for another lover, rents out a closet to a local prostitute, and starts performing abortions in her kitchen, all for extra cash. This doesn't sit well with the Nazis, and when they find out, she's whisked off to Paris, where she meets a tragic end. (Sorry to spoil the end, but the movie is based on the true story of the last woman in France to be executed by guillotine.)
Huppert is the sole highlight of the movie, playing her character with willful apathy toward everything that doesn't get her ahead. She's hard to like, but at the same time she's a hero, in a strange way: Most of the babies she's aborting are Germans, the result of prostitutes who slept with the enemy. She's sympathetic while being cold and, repeatedly, free of any sort of morality. It's this dreadful consternation that makes Chabrol's film work more often than not.
Too bad then that the movie has nothing else going for it. Various subplots are uninteresting or too minimal to make an impact. The story is very linear, with little nuance or perspective offered on the world of France in the 1940s. For a period piece, Chabrol makes almost no use of sets of the era. With few changes, this movie could take place at any time.
It's an interesting look at a tiny aspect of the French condition in WWII, but I had hoped for a more sweeping and insightful film from one of cinema's masters.
Aka Une affaire de femmes.