Claude Chabrol's stark and unsentimental masterpiece about the last woman to be executed in France--she was guillotined for performing abortions in Nazi-occupied France during World War II--forces us to see a side of war not often depicted. What does a woman with two little children do when her country is occupied by the brute forces of the enemy? How is she to find enough to eat, to buy the increasingly scarce and costly necessities of life? How is she to find joy in life? Women often turn to prostitution during such times, but Maire Latout does not. Instead she aborts the foetuses of the prostitutes and of other women impregnated, often by the Nazis. In a sense this is her "resistence." However she prospers and takes up with a Nazi collaborator. In the process she reduces her husband to frustration and humiliation.
Isabelle Huppert as Marie Latout is mesmerizing in a role that allows her talent full latitude. She is clear-headed and sly as a business woman, warm and ordinary as a mother, cold and brutal as a wife, childish and careless as an adulteress, resourceful and fearless as an abortionist, and unrepentant as she awaits the executioner (foreshadowed, by the way, by her son, who wants to be an executioner when he grows up). Francois Cluzet plays her husband Paul, and he is also very good, especially at rousing our pity. Chabrol makes it clear that both Marie and Paul are victims, not only of war, but of their divergent natures. Paul wants the love of Marie, but she wants only a man that represents success and power, a man who is clean-shaven, not the menial worker that he is. Marie Trintignant is interesting and convincing as a prostitute who becomes Marie Latout's friend and business associate.
While abortion is indeed "Une affaire de femmes" this film is about much more than that. No doubt the title is there to emphasize Charbrol's point that men really do not (did not then, and do not now) really understand abortion and why it is sometimes a horrible and abject necessity. When Marie is taken to Paris for a show trial she exclaims to a woman in jail with her, referring to the court that will pass judgment on her, "It's all men...how could men understand?" We can see that men really can't, and that precisely is what this movie is all about: showing us just how horrible pregnancy can be under the circumstances of enemy occupation.
A secondary story here, not quite a subplot, is Paul's story. What does a man do when he and his children are dependent on a woman who doesn't love him, a woman who rejects him and even goes so far as to arrange for the cleaning woman to sleep with him? It is not only Marie who humiliates him, but it is the defeat of his country, the easy surrender to the Nazis that has so reduced him. This is made clear in a scene late in the film between two lawyers who voice their shame as Frenchmen in a time of defeat.
What Paul does is not pretty (and I won't reveal it here), but so great is the provocation that one understands his behavior and can forgive him.