In 1957, two young critics from Cahiers de cinéma published a study of Alfred Hitchcock, drawing attention to the artistic and moral complexity of a filmmaker previously classed as a mere entertainer. Among the key concepts pioneered by Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer in this book was the ‘transfer of guilt’. This was the process whereby either the antisocial feelings or actions of the hero were transferred to a ‘villain’ character who could be identified, punished and removed, thereby purging the hero, the narrative world and the moral economy of the film; or, conversely, the sins of the world were borne by an ‘innocent’ hero.
In his subsequent filmmaking career, Chabrol retained the preference for the crime genre and flair for black comedy of his idol Hitchcock, working out many permutations of the ‘transfer of guilt’ motif in over 50 films. But in works such as Le boucher (1970), Violette Nozière (1978), and Story of Women – films that seem to be clinical studies of criminal types, and in the latter two, studies of specifically female criminal types – Chabrol is particularly interested in its second iteration. The guilt of a wider society is placed on an anti-hero(ine) who is made a scapegoat and punished, with her life, for crimes committed by her accusers that are far more heinous and pervasive than any she ever committed.
In Le boucher and Violette Nozière, the social crime is general bourgeois and petite-bourgeoisie hypocrisy and repression sited in the rural community and the urban family respectively. In Story of Women, the society is identified more specifically – Occupied France during World War II, where a housewife becomes an abortionist while her husband is interned in a German POW camp. Chabrol provocatively casts his analysis of the period in gendered terms. The Fall of France is a fall of French masculinity, literally embodied in the maimed figure of Paul Latour (François Cluzet). Absent in the film’s early scenes, Paul is not introduced as a vigorous human being but by belongings dumped on the kitchen table on his return. The man himself is fast asleep in bed, rigid as a corpse, his hands on his waistband as if he has just finished masturbating. His wife Marie (Isabelle Huppert) refuses to sleep with him, ostensibly because household drudgery has corroded her desire. The scene, however, in which she protests while cleaning Paul’s shit-stained underpants – for her the physical evidence of his cowardice – shows that the source of her disgust is the sense of his personal (and by extension national) shame.1
What fatally provokes Paul is not moral outrage at his wife’s illegal activities, but Marie’s flagrant emasculation as she conducts her adulteries under his nose. Story of Women is one of Chabrol’s many variations on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) – a novel about a failed marriage in Normandy between a dull husband and a fantasising, adulteress wife – that made his actual 1991 adaptation with Huppert superfluous. Paul’s stolidity is contrasted with Marie’s dynamism. She is an entrepreneur – this is a film of the 1980s, remember – who builds a business and enables her family to live in comfort by turning an extempore abortion performed on a neighbour and her friendship with a prostitute into a lucrative enterprise. And just as at the Liberation a nation of defeated Frenchmen transferred their own guilt by humiliating those women deemed to have collaborated with the enemy, so Marie gets a very public comeuppance.
Chabrol deliberately outlines Marie’s character as monstrous: she beats her eldest, adoring son; abandons her children at night while she dances in clandestine cafés; kills desperate women with her incompetent procedures; and pursues an affair with a hated collabo. For all that, Marie is literally the life and spirit of the film, her restless movements animating the dispiriting and colourless environment that encloses her. Ever the master ironist, Chabrol contrasts two long sequences of Marie walking down a grey, empty, washed-out street as milestones on her ‘journey’ in the film. The first is part of the opening-credit sequence where Marie and her children move through progressively narrowing spaces, from the ‘nature’ in which they scrabble for subsistence, through the dismal streets of Dieppe, to their derelict housing complex and a bare, freezing apartment. Far from signalling contracted socio-economic and spiritual horizons, this walk is the first step in Marie’s initial ‘rise’, as she meets her neighbour in the stairwell with her boyfriend, who is about to be sent to a German labour camp. The off-screen result of this liaison will provide Marie with a new vocation that will take her out of this cramped habitat where the family live like rats.
The second walk sees Marie at the height of her happiness and economic power, on her way to music lessons.2 She is blissfully unaware that her bitter husband has denounced her, and that the police will arrest her on the way home, leading to the second stage of her journey, or Passion – prison, public opprobrium, and death. The film is called Une affaire de femmes, but the women do not dominate their story for very long. As Marie walks to her music lessons, Paul reads his denunciation off-screen, with all the calm clarity and authority of a Voice-of-God narrator; the voice of one inadequate father will give way to images of the nation’s corrupt patriarch, Maréchal Pétain, whose portrait watches on as Marie’s fate is sealed by a series of pathetic, self-serving, and/or vicious men. Her son’s voiceover – which appears at intervals, and seems to engender the film as a remembered narrative – fixes Marie as a child, as if she is someone who cannot be relied on to think sensibly for herself and therefore needs a strong parent to put her right.
But Chabrol is never more devious that when he is at his most apparently earnest. His great play with tone and point-of-view in Story of Women is perfectly matched by the infinitely versatile Huppert. Even more than his first and long-term muse (and first wife) Stéphane Audran, Huppert is the perfect Chabrol actress, capable at once of immersion and irony, emotional warmth and watchful intelligence, high comedy and harrowing tragedy, fearless physicality and spiritual torment. Her mercurial persona matched to Chabrol’s proliferating ironies means that this Story of Women never sits still.
Story of Women / Une affaire de femmes (1988 France 108 mins)
Prod Co: MK2 Productions/Films A2/Les Films du Camélia Prod: Marin Karmitz Dir: Claude Chabrol Scr: Colo Tavernier & Claude Chabrol, based on the book by Francis Szpiner Phot: Jean Rabier Ed: Monique Fardoulis Prod Des: Françoise Benoît-Fresco Mus: Matthieu Chabrol
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, François Cluzet, Marie Trintignant
- In the first episode of Histoire(s) du cinéma of the same year, Chabrol’s former Cahiers comrade Jean-Luc Godard speaks of the Fall in similarly sexualised terms, narrating ‘”en même temps que l’armée allemande / prend l’armée française par derrière” (at the same time the German army takes the French army from behind)’, while conflating Max Ophuls’ unfinished film L’école des femmes and the director’s affair with his lead actress Madeleine Ozeray with a porn film set in Nazi Germany. Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli, ‘Noli me tangere: Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma’, in Tom Conley and T. Jefferson Kline (eds.), A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard, Wiley Blackwell, Chichester, 2014. ↩
- Her teacher praises Marie’s voice, but whether or not this is to keep a remunerative pupil is left to viewer/listener to decide. ↩