Film Director: Audrey Diwan (France). Year of Release: 2021
1963, Angoulême in South-West France. A group of young women are preparing for an evening out. They are tightening each other’s bras to make their breasts look bigger. They’re on their way to a student party where generic rock and roll music plays in the background. Anne is a little aloof. A man approaches her, saying that he’s a gate crashing fireman pretending to be a history student. It appears that she wants nothing to do with him, and just walks off.
Not long after, Anne visits a doctor complaining of stomach cramps. He asks if she’d had sex. When she says no, he says that this is strange because she’s pregnant. Anne immediately asks to get rid of it, but he can’t because it’s illegal. At least he tries to help, even though he says that his hands are legally tied. Another doctor appears to be sympathetic and offers her a potion, saying that it will help her get rid of the foetus. In fact, it makes it harder for her when she tries to abort.
Anne is forced to attempt an illegal abortion, but this is by no means easy. For a start, finding someone who admits to performing them needs access to clandestine networks. If it goes wrong and you are rushed to hospital, you are at the mercy of the nursing staff. If they say you have had a miscarriage, all you have to worry about is severe internal bleeding and a life threatening situation. If they say you had an abortion, you are taken straight from the operating table to jail.
The abortionist is not a cuddly Vera Drake-like figure, but someone who may well sympathise with her clients, but is ultimately doing a job. She tells Anne not to cry out in pain, as the walls are thin and the neighbours could report them both. She looks on without emotion, as she knows the risks that she is inviting. She is just performing a service and cannot invest herself emotionally any more than this. She is unable to offer Anne the support that she so obviously needs.
This is a plot from a thousand soap operas, but here it is handled much less melodramatically. Anne is left to deal with the situation pretty much on her own. The men in her life are predictably useless – one even offers to help while trying to sleep with her, cos there’s no risk any more. Her female friends are more sympathetic, but due to the ban on even discussing abortion, they are wary of getting involved.
Some critics have warned that the film is not for everyone and that some won’t find it entertaining. This is correct, but if you get off on a film on mass slaughter, but are not prepared to confront the pain suffered by many women, maybe it’s your problem. Some scenes are certainly terrifying, and I flinched even more than I did in That Scene in Marathon Man, when confronted with the instruments that are about to be inserted into Anne. But isn’t this what cinema should do?
The date in which the film is set is important for a number of reason. Philip Larkin famously said that “Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) Between the end of the Chatterley ban And the Beatles’ first LP”. Of course he wasn’t literally true, or Mr. and Mrs. Larkin would not have been able to produce a curmudgeonly poet. But Das Ereignis takes place in a time when some sexual opportunities were starting to become available to more people.
It wasn’t just sex. Some people like Anne (and Annie Ernaux, who wrote L’événement, the novel on which this film is based), who were from poor families, had the opportunity of a University education which was simply unavailable to their parents and meant that especially women had the possibility of jobs which could gain them financial independence. In such circumstances, childbirth and even marriage threatened to clip their wings and deny them this independence.
Although sex was apparently available for the first time, the concomitant protection of women was not. Abortion was not legalised in Britain till 1967, in the US till 1973 and in France till 1975. This put women in a double bind – allowed to express their sexuality to a certain degree, but at the same time punished for their acts. The sixties only swung for them within very limited parameters.
I worry that the fact that Anne is young and pretty and clever implies that her unwanted pregnancy is somehow more tragic than an uglier or less well educated young woman. I still think that this implication is there, but it is one that can be rationalized – as one of the few women who had been afforded the opportunity to escape her inevitable fate, one can empathize with Anne’s sense of utter loss. This does not mean that other unwanted pregnancies were any less traumatic.
Das Ereignis is an interventionist film, and all the better that it is. Restrictions on abortion rights are not just a historical problem. In the US, right wing activists are trying to return some States to the old days. In Germany, doctors have been fined for just saying that they perform abortions. This is a film that shows clearly why this may not be allowed to happen.