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'Story of Women' (NR)

By Desson Howe
November 03, 1989

CLAUDE CHABROL's "Story of Women" is not only about the extraordinary, it is extraordinary; an unflinching treatment of a volatile issue, it refuses to simplify or close its eyes. Undoubtedly -- assuming this movie is seen, and it ought to be seen -- such an unblinking approach, given the abortion hysteria currently enveloping the Supreme Court, will shock, divide and maybe -- and let us pray for such civic enthusiasm -- bring out the magic markers and placards.

But the only banner "Women" unfurls is an artistic one. Chabrol, in fact, dedicates his film, with impishly outstretched arms, to "all its interpreters" and, at the close of this rigorous, stirring work, asks us (in a rare flash of grandiosity) to "have pity for the children of those who are condemned."

Pity for children is better underlined when a woman, whose sister-in-law has died from a shoddy backroom abortion, visits the illegal "clinic" with two of the children of the dead woman in tow. She hasn't come to scream or accuse. She has come to show the woman who performed the abortion some living children -- the ones lucky enough to escape her booming "service."

"Women" isn't merely watching from the aggrieved woman's point of view. Chabrol, one of France's finest film directors who, like his idol Alfred Hitchcock, finds sympathies on the shadowy side of conventional morality, makes us feel equally for Marie Latour (Isabelle Huppert), the one who did the dirty deed, who receives the news of this grim death with genuine surprise and whose story, based on the real-life doings of Marie-Louise Giraud, this is.

Chabrol doesn't allow "evil" and "immorality" to remain abstract, which has already outraged the appropriate Europeans. Rather than morally justify Marie's change from poor wife and mother to abortion-meister, Chabrol follows her evolution human-detail by detail, with a compassion broad and un-hysterical enough to understand someone who can love her two children, have an extramarital affair, perform more than 20 abortions (upping the price too), rent out a room to a whore-friend (Marie Trintignant) and, after the Vichy authorities throw the book at her, utter a blasphemous (and unprintable) anti-prayer to the Virgin Mary.

Huppert (star of Claude Goretta's "The Lacemaker" and title murderess in Chabrol's "Violette"), gives that evolution robust dimension. By the time she reaches the depths of abject despair (hence the malignant prayer), she has felt the elation of new-found love, a childlike ambition to be a stage singer and the initial satisfaction that this profitable thing is right because, after all, the war against women knows no armistice.

STORY OF WOMEN (Unrated)

In French with subtitles

Copyright The Washington Post

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