This film may be in french, but that won’t stop its star, Isabelle Huppert, from winning acting accolades in every country where her work is shown; she’s already won at the Venice Film Festival. Huppert, whose American movies include The Bedroom Window and Heaven’s Gate, has seized the role of a life-time. The film is based on the real story of Marie-Louise Giraud (here called Marie Latour), one of the last women to be executed in France. Her crime, for which she was guillotined in 1943, was performing illegal abortions. Director and co-writer Claude Chabrol does not miss the irony of the Vichy government’s condemning women for an operation now covered by medical insurance. Americans will not miss the irony in light of the recent legal debates on abortion and the U.S. government’s regression in regard to women’s rights. This is hot-issue moviemaking, sure to stir things up.
Chabrol, in peak form, wisely avoids a sensational presentation. He gives the facts a stirring intimacy. Marie, the mother of two young kids, is trapped in poverty and a loveless marriage. She has no experience with abortions — she merely helps an unmarried friend. Later, encouraged by her success, she asks a prostitute (Marie Trintignant) for aid in finding new clients. Soon her business is booming: She can afford food, clothes and singing lessons. She even takes a lover (Nils Tavernier), a French collaborator with the Germans. That betrayal enrages her husband (Francois Cluzet), who turns her in to a regime that mercilessly decides to make an example of her.
Huppert allows us to understand this woman without ever pushing us to like her. Marie can be selfish, unthinking. When a customer dies after a rare botched operation, Marie’s sorrow is short-lived. She’s a businesswoman. Huppert pulls us into this story, keeping us alert to every shade of pride and panic in a woman trapped by the circumstances of her life and times. Her acting is eager, feral. She gives a triumphant performance in a story of injustice that’s hard to take and harder to forget.