Creeps or heroes. This is my theory about why there are so few powerful roles for women in Hollywood films. Henry Ford offered the American public any car as long as it was black, and the Hollywood Dream Machine inherited the same magnanimous spirit. Any character, as long as they’re black or white. Works well for guys. From the first westerns with William S. Hart in the early 1920’s, through John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, this single-minded moral vision of the universe has paid off in spades. One omnipotent celluloid archetype after another, self-perpetuating, endlessly repeatable. It’s even given some of the players the power to challenge their own stereotypes. Anthony Hopkins’ nasty, brilliant turn as an anthropophagous gourmet in The Silence of the Lambs was a terrific career move, and his next film was the sublimely restrained The Remains of the Day.
With one-dimensional morality plays working so well, why should Hollywood offer anything else? Too bad if good roles for women don’t fit the scheme. So what if the theatrical repertoire offers hundreds of powerful, intimate dramas focused around real lives— let’s just sic Sigourney Weaver on some aliens, send Glenn Close after Michael Douglas with a large knife, send Geena Davis & Susan Sarandon wheeling around the country and off a cliff, stick Jamie Lee Curtis on the Cameron/Schwarzenegger rollercoaster, and ship Meryl Streep downriver with a couple of psychos.
Obviously, there are exceptions. Jodie Foster comes immediately to mind. But on the whole, if anyone’s seeking spiritual nourishment in a realistic exploration of women’s lives on screen—and not women’s Larger-than-Lives—North American cinema is a starvation diet.
Want to see what you’re missing? Check out French director Claude Chabrol’s A Story of Women (1988). Not the most eye-catching title in world, I’ll admit. Something’s lost in translation. Bass Fishing in the Adirondacks would probably get more second looks. Tant pis, as the French would say. A Story of Women has one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen. Any competent actress can play a femme fatale or a crusading heroine. It takes a terrific actress to portray a character that the viewer is driven to try to understand. I knew this was just a movie, but I couldn’t help trying to look into Isabelle Huppert’s eyes to try and fathom the thoughts and desires which moved behind them.
Based on a true story, Huppert plays the role of Marie Latour, the last woman to be guillotined in France. Set in Dieppe during the time of the Nazi occupation, Marie was one of the thousands of victims of a collaborationist French government which preached moral purity at the same time it rounded up Jews for German concentration camps. Marie’s crimes against the “moral authority of the state”: performing illegal abortions and renting rooms to a prostitute. The government’s case is simple: Because French society had suffered a crippling blow with the German occupation, “healing” was needed. To heal, the body politic had to be cleansed. And if a part of that body was “gangrenous,” it had to be “amputated.”
Marie’s fate is a footnote in history. Chabrol’s film and Huppert’s performance remind us with a vengeance that every such footnote is the endpoint of an entire life. A life of strange choices, betrayals, love, friendship, fear, desire, fantasy, cruelty. We never know exactly who Marie is because she does not know herself. What she does know is that she despises poverty, that she loves to sing, that her husband means nothing to her. The she can both love life and coolly administer death. That she is guilty of something. That her death sentence is monstrously injust. The viewer is almost as bewildered as Marie’s husband who, when he finally breaks under a weight of humiliations and asks “What do you hold against me?” receives the bitter reply, “Not loving you.” Francois Cluzet is superb as the husband, discovering that the battlefield he has survived may be less incomprehensible than the home he has returned to. Also outstanding is the young actor who plays Marie’s 7-year-old son. There hasn’t been this ambivalent a mother-son relationship since that between Anjelica Houston and John Cusack in John Huston’s The Grifters.
Superb acting aside, the lives portrayed in A Story of Women are made even more real by first-rate lighting and cinematography. The settings seem absolutely authentic. The lighting is such that everything has its own palpable texture. This film should be a recommended textbook on the use of light and shadow for dramatic effect. Like many foreign directors not coming from the Hollywood / MTV fast-cut culture, Chabrol relies much more upon the impact of subtle camera movement within a scene than on the impact of rapid-fire montage. He is willing to let his camera simply look at faces and create tableaus. And as in several other films about which I have written in this column, there is a good deal of silence. Music plays a critical role in A Story of Women, yet it is used like the punctuation marks in a brilliantly-crafted paragraph.
Marie’s is a terrible rebellion. It is necessary and it is futile. What she will do to rescue her children from poverty and herself from boredom must inevitably destroy both her and her family. She senses this inevitability, but cannot believe this is the only reward for all of her strength and intelligence and passion and talent. Similarly, she will not accept that her best friend from childhood has disappeared forever into the distant nightmare of the concentration camps. In prison in Paris, she wants a post card of the Eiffel Tower to send to her children. At home her daughter cries hysterically and her son sits alone in bed, banging his head mechanically against the wall.
There is so much in A Story of Women that invites judgment. Claude Chabrol and his actors have accomplished the miracle of making us think long and hard before we pass sentence.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
There is no way this story is going to end well. Nazi-occupied France, A woman with the delayed-gratification control of an immature seven-year-old. An emasculated husband. Abortion. Prostitution. Collaboration. Infidelity. After a litany like that, A Story of Women might seem like it would play out beyond grim, would be an almost unwatchable descent into damnation. Except that it isn’t. The viewer’s salvation is Isabelle Huppert’s remarkable performance in the lead role. We care about Marie even as she gives us a dozen reasons to condemn her. A lesser actress would very likely not have been able to negotiate the fine line between an amoral narcissistic personality and an affectless sociopathic one. The latter would have aroused only revulsion; the former makes us look at ourselves a little closer. What compromises might we have been willing to make, or not make, inside the pressure cooker of a foreign occupation? One can question almost every one of Marie’s choices, but she never ceases to be capable of caring, loving, dreaming, and wanting as much out of life in the moment as she can get. She may not have a lot of time for people who can’t give her what she thinks she wants, but only her husband bears the full brunt of her scorn. Others—her children, lover, friends, clients—simply accept her for who and what she is.
The State is not so forgiving. And much, much more hypocritical. There’s a black-gloved authority figure lifted straight out of Dr. Strangelove.
Incredibly, Isabelle Huppert has had only a single Academy Award nomination, and has never taken home an Oscar. She probably doesn’t feel too bad, however. She’s picked up 103 other awards and 49 more nominations. Imdb currently lists 134 film credits. She made her first film when she was 18. The only other actress I can think of with that kind of resume is Meryl Streep. If someone could put Ms. Huppert and Ms. Streep together in a solid screenplay, the result would be the dramatic equivalent of nuclear fusion. We can only dream. In the meantime, with A Story of Women you’re seeing one of the world’s finest actresses in one of her strongest roles.