FILMS

Women on the edge

Two tragic French stories reach the screen

Brian D. Johnson February 5 1990
FILMS

Women on the edge

Two tragic French stories reach the screen

Brian D. Johnson February 5 1990

Women on the edge

FILMS

Two tragic French stories reach the screen

They both died in 1943. One of the last women to be executed in France, Marie-Louise Giraud was guillotined for conducting abortions. Three months later, artist Camille Claudel, the abandoned mistress of sculptor Auguste Rodin, died at 78 of natural causes after spending 30 years imprisoned in an insane asylum. Her crime was madness, the result of unrequited love and unheralded genius. Generations apart, Giraud and Claudel belonged to different worlds. But both women were punished for defying male society and asserting their independence. Now, they are the subjects of two highly acclaimed French movies being released in North America. Story of Women is an intimate and profoundly affecting psychological drama in which Isabelle Huppert portrays Marie Latour, a character closely based on Giraud, with unflinching realism. Camille Claudel is a handsome but overwrought epic, a romantic melodrama featuring Isabelle Adjani as a

beautiful and helpless victim.

Immaculately directed by veteran film-maker Claude Chabrol, Story of Women has been named Best Foreign Film by both the New York City and Los Angeles critics’ associations. Chabrol’s depiction of Latour is shrewdly ambiguous—unflattering and sympathetic at the same time. Her motives for performing abortions have little to do with compassion or principle. She is simply a resourceful opportunist who needs the money and enjoys the freedom that it buys. Latour is a feminist heroine only by default— which makes her martyrdom all the more harrowing.

The story begins in 1941. A mother of two

children, Latour lives in a grim apartment in a small town near Dieppe, where she struggles to survive on the proceeds of her knitting and dreams of becoming a singer. She becomes an amateur abortionist after catching her nextdoor neighbor taking a mustard bath—a primitive attempt to end a pregnancy. Latour’s technique is not much more sophisticated, but it works. And she is delighted when the neighbor rewards her with the gift of a phonograph.

Unexpectedly, her soldier husband, Paul (François Cluzet), comes home from the war.

He is a defeated man with no future, and Latour resents his presence. As their marriage crumbles, her secret sideline turns into a lucrative venture. She finds a soul mate in a prostitute named Lucie (Marie Trintignant), who agrees to pass her name on to working girls with unwanted pregnancies. And soon, Latour is able to move her family into more spacious quarters. She even rents Lucie a spare room where she can enter81 tain her clients. Meanwhile, she takes in a lover who turns out to be a Nazi collaborator.

Occasionally, Latour has

moral qualms about abortion, but her doubts are fleeting. She is just another entrepreneur in the black-market maze of occupied France. In the end, Story of Women is not really about

abortion—now covered by French health care—but about the lingering shame of the Occupation. Latour becomes a scapegoat for a collaborationist government presiding over a shattered nation. After her arrest, a fellow prisoner spells out the hypocrisy: “How could men understand?” she asks.

“They spend the war sitting on their ass, then they pick one woman out of the blue.”

Camille Claudel is another attempt to restore the dignity of a woman wronged by history. Until recent years, Claudel was regarded as a colorful footnote in Rodin’s spectacular career. But recently, she has been recognized not just as pupil, model and mistress of Rodin, but also as a gifted sculptor in her own right.

Two years ago, a major exhibition of her work toured Japan and the United States.

And now, the Rodin Museum in Paris is creating a Claudel gallery. The movie came about after Adjani bought the rights to a 1984 biography, Camille Claudel, 1864-1943, written by Claudel’s grandniece, Reine-Marie Paris.

Adjani’s passion for the role is obvious in

every frame of her performance. A dramatic

opening scene shows Claudel as a sculpture student voraciously digging mud from the clay walls of a deep trench in Paris and lugging it in a suitcase to her studio. As a friend observes, “Mud is a sickness” for Claudel. So is love. Hired by the impetuous Rodin (Gérard Depardieu) as an apprentice, she is tom between her

infatuation with him and a bold desire to pursue her own art free from his influence. Although she has been warned about Rodin’s womanizing ways, she cannot resist him.

Their romance blossoms. But Rodin refuses to marry her and remains loyal to Rose Beuret, his longtime mistress and mother of his son. Pregnant with Rodin’s child, Claudel has an abortion and ends the relationship. But as she resumes her work, she remains obsessed with him. Increasingly distraught, she imagines that Rodin is secretly conspiring to ruin her career. To make matters worse, she feels betrayed by her beloved brother, Paul, who becomes a successful poet. Ultimately, Claudel’s anger turns inward, into self-destructive madness.

Too long at two hours and 29 minutes, Claudel offers a pretty but ponderous journey into despair. The camera dotes on Adjani, who has exquisite screen presence. But her beauty is sometimes a handicap. Towards the end, as various characters comment on Claudel’s deterioration, she still looks like a model trying to rough up her looks with makeup. Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten makes a shaky directing debut, but his images are impressive. Claudel draws a fascinating contrast between the sinewy heroism of Rodin’s sculpture and the interior power of Claudel’s. The film-maker clearly sides with his heroine. Still, the style of his well-muscled melodrama owes more to Rodin than to the woman who went crazy trying to escape his shadow.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON