With a smile as cold and shining as sun on snow, Isabelle Huppert plays Marie-Louise Giraud, an illegal abortionist sent to the guillotine in 1943 by the Vichy regime. Claude Chabrol writes and directs Marie as an unconventional heroine, one who is poor and uneducated and dreams of becoming a singer. Marie ‘helps out women’ to make money to buy jam for her children and cigarettes for her husband, and to rent a house so ‘they don’t live like rats’.
Although Chabrol addresses the consequences of Marie’s ‘profession’, and touches the surrounding moral issues, albeit with a light touch, Une Affaire De Femmes is much more a film about Marie’s unusual personality and her close friendship with women. Chabrol invites us to understand all her shadows, and hold her hand.
On the surface, Huppert’s glacial Marie is the antithesis of the ‘good wartime woman’. Alongside her kitchen table abortions, she is impatient with her children, sending them out to play in the rain while she ‘works’. She also lacks compassion for her shell-shocked husband (François Cluzet), who soils his underwear during the night. As she scrubs the ‘shit’ from the cloth, she says it is impossible for her to be in the mood to sleep with him. There is a steel rod of pragmatism and bluntness that holds Marie erect, and it is compelling.
Huppert and Chabrol work their magic to present Marie as a fantasist. She is always looking for an ‘elsewhere’: singing, dancing or seeking amusement with a lover. There is a childish innocence to this merry-making that makes it impossible to judge Marie. Equally disarming is the fearless way Marie admits her lack of education: she tells her son, unashamedly, that she can’t help him with his homework, and keenly admits her inability to spell when her husband complains that she didn’t write him love letters when he was at war.
For me, Une Affaire De Femmes is about immovable female friendship. Marie’s only joyful and fulfilling interactions are with two women: a beautiful friend who is suddenly taken away (for whom she weeps, unaware that she was Jewish), and a sweet, sisterly friendship with ‘Lulu’ (a luminous performance by Marie Trintignant), one of the town’s prostitutes.
Marie goes out of her way to help Lulu, and the two discuss life with gentle clarity. Huppert’s scenes with Trintignant are the moments when Marie truly thaws and we are with her, beneath her skin. So much so, that after the horrific final scene, you’ll feel you have lost a friend.
Director: Claude Chabrol
Helen Van Kruyssen