I’m not enough of a movie buff or movie historian to have come across the name Claude Chabrol before seeing this movie, but he’s one of the French New Wave directors that came on the scene in the 1950s. The Story of Women is a 1988 film of his about one woman’s life in occupied France in World War II.
It is loosely based on a real person guillotined in 1943 for performing illegal abortions.
One surprise I’ll mention right off the top is that the foreshadowing of the execution is obvious enough for me to have caught (her son mentions wanting to be an executioner because he likes the cool mask; a goose is slaughtered by having its head cut off), and I’m not in tune with that sort of stuff at all when I watch movies. It’s somewhat unusual for me pick up on it in a regular movie; I would never expect a big shot foreign director to make such things crude and obvious enough for someone like me to notice.
I thought this was a well-acted, intelligent movie from start to finish. It never drew me in in a big way, but it never lost me either.
The movie hits on a lot of important issues and themes. Maybe the main one has to do with how poorly the people in this French town respond to the crisis of German occupation (which, I take it, is the filmmaker’s ways of confessing that the French in general responded shamefully to Nazism). Some are enthusiastic collaborators; some are more passive collaborators who avoid making trouble and go along to the extent necessary to survive. Some find ways to exploit other equally or more desperate folks. Some, like the main character’s husband, are rendered broken and useless by what they’ve experienced. But signs of resistance, heroism, or really just conscience in general are pretty minimal.
Another theme, which the main character appeals to in order to excuse herself, is that however bad things are for people in general, women tend to have extra burdens to bear. I don’t know that that comes out all that clearly in the movie though. Like I say, to some extent it just functions as an excuse for the main character, who is far from a morally exemplary, blameless person. Yes, there’s a sense in which it’s true—even a miserable male might get to lord it over his wife and keep her pregnant and under his thumb—but a situation of total war is not a picnic for males. Most of them are dead, in slave labor camps, or otherwise getting the short end of the stick. As oppressor groups go, most of its members don’t seem to be having much fun.
There is also the issue of abortion, on which the movie does not take a simplistic, one-sided position. On the pro-choice side, it very effectively conveys the points that abortion can be motivated by the fact that a woman in a largely powerless position will have her life substantially damaged further by bearing another child, and that women can be desperate enough that they will have abortions regardless of how many barriers you erect, thus rendering criminalization never more than minimally effective. And it portrays the abortionist main character as having initially been motivated largely by a desire to help those in need.
But on the other side, it shows the abortionist gradually coming around to being more and more motivated by money, it includes a powerful scene of the abortionist being confronted by a woman reporting to her that one of the women she assisted to abort died shortly thereafter, and it allows characters—not all clearly evil, religiously fanatic, or male—to express the position that there is a soul or something that renders a person a person starting from conception rather than from birth.
On the whole I don’t find the anti-abortion elements of the movie convincing (you have to ask what the woman who died tragically’s chances of survival would have been if safe, legal abortions were available instead of what she got from this amateur, plus you have to compare the deaths and suffering of her and others from abortion, with the greater deaths and suffering of those who choose—or have chosen for them—childbirth instead), but it’s not like the deck is stacked in favor of the pro-choice side.
I think there’s also an interesting theme in the movie of “Keep in mind while you’re doing what you’re doing that children are watching and being influenced.” The action focuses almost exclusively on adults, but children—including the two children of the abortionist—always seem to be present, observing. As the main character’s family breaks down and events get more and more conflictual and out of control, you see her children growing increasingly distressed. Then after she is taken into custody to eventually be executed, there is an effective scene of the father futilely trying to calm the crying daughter, while the son slowly bangs his head against the wall. The movie closes with “Have pity for the children of those who are condemned” across the screen (with “condemned,” in my opinion, to be interpreted not just as those who are sentenced to death, but also those who are condemned to all the other ways lives can be destroyed by war, women who are condemned to choosing between unwanted, risky childbirth versus unsafe, illegal abortions, etc.)
Maybe a lesser theme is that of religion. Mainstream religion’s anti-abortion stance comes across as at best taking an extreme position on a gray area issue, and at worst as actively participating in the oppression of women, focusing on an allegedly urgently needed limitation on their freedom for moral reasons, while not breaking a sweat to side with them in their suffering and their struggles in the ways you’d hope that compassion and a Christian championing of underdogs and martyrs would entail. As the main character recognizes at the end of the movie, Christianity didn’t offer her much respect, compassion or assistance when she was in need, instead limiting its role in her life to denouncing her as a murderer when she turned to selling abortion services to survive. (And it’s certainly creepy to see nuns acting as jailers for the Nazi collaborationist French government. What would Jesus do indeed.)
So the movie gives one an impressive amount to think about. And just as far as the plot, and wanting to follow what’s happening, and wanting to get inside these characters and decide what to think about them and whom to root for, it’s at least moderately compelling. It provides no easy answers, including on the matter of how to assess the main character. She’s probably got at least as much bad as good to her, but there’s plenty of both, and a lot of the bad the movie encourages you to see as a product of the extreme circumstances.
One other thing that struck me in the movie was a line uttered by the main character. I’d have to go back to check exactly the circumstances, but it comes after it’s been well established that she is pretty much an amoral, apolitical person who will behave in whatever way benefits her. Someone challenges her on her stance vis-à-vis the Nazis (probably concerning her affair with the collaborationist), and she says “But I’m for the Resistance!”
And in my mind I wanted to add “but I’m not practicing,” like people who nominally belong to a religion but make little or no effort to live by its tenets. She took for granted, and was surprised and a little offended that someone else did not take for granted, what side she was on. Like, “Regardless of what we’re actually doing about it, we’re all on the same team here, right? We all hate those awful Nazis, and if we could wave a magic wand and get rid of them we would.”
So it serves some emotional purpose to think of oneself as loyal to a certain side, but when push comes to shove you do what you need to do (while refusing to notice how doing so constitutes disloyalty to the very side you like to flatter yourself is yours).
Like I say, I didn’t get into The Story of Women in a big way, so I certainly wouldn’t identify it as a favorite of mine, but it is worth seeing.