For most of history, prior to quickening, abortion was not a crime but a decision. Depictions of the procedure can be found across various remnants of the ancient world: in bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat; in a throwaway joke about pennyroyal, a flowering plant that induces miscarriages, in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata; in Egyptian, Indian and Chinese medical texts. Different methods of terminating a pregnancy were passed down orally, woman to woman; when Western medicine began to advance and legally standardise itself in the 19th century, female bodily autonomy quickly became a casualty, along with midwifery.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is released in UK cinemas and on demand on 28 February 2020.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire shows abortion in its pre-modern state, which is at once more liberated, imprecise and dangerous than choice in our time. After the maid Sophie fails to induce a miscarriage through strenuous exercise or homemade abortifacient tea, she visits an abortionist – who is likely also a midwife – with painter Marianne and Héloïse, the young woman whose portrait Marianne has been commissioned to paint. Sophie lies on the bed, her face illuminated by both the fireplace and sunlight, contrasting colour temperatures that express her uncertainty. Héloïse encourages Marianne to watch as the abortionist works, the woman’s children bouncing above Sophie’s head all the while. The kids’ presence is not gratuitous, but affirms the cyclical nature of fertility and procreation – Sophie’s decision to terminate the pregnancy doesn’t mean that she will never have a child, but simply that she will not have a child at this time.
Later that evening, as Sophie recovers, Héloïse restages the procedure and tells Marianne to paint. By asking her lover to be both witness and documentarian, Héloïse shows that she understands the importance and privilege of both roles – she entrusts Marianne to a depict a rare subject of female self-determination. More than the formal portrait that first brings them together, it is this collaboration between Marianne, the painter, and Héloïse, the model, that evinces the true nature of their relationship.
Male takes: fear and evasion
This scene of female-centric creation serves as a metaphor for Sciamma’s film itself, a rare, complex depiction of abortion in a medium that has so often ignored the procedure or written it off as fatal. Lest you label me an angry feminist, a survey of abortion-related plots in American film and television from 1916 to 2013 found that approximately 13 per cent of female characters who had or even considered having an abortion died; while about five per cent of unwanted pregnancies were still unresolved by the end of the narrative. Hollywood films such as 1951’s A Place in the Sun and 1963’s Love with the Proper Stranger, which float the idea, use marriage as the way out. 2007’s Knocked Up, released over four decades later and following the same ‘win the pregnant lady’s heart’ plot, doesn’t even get around to mentioning the word ‘abortion’.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s approach to abortion is unusual, especially in a French context, that country having only removed a mandatory seven-day ‘cool-down’ period between a request for an abortion and the procedure itself in 2015. Claude Chabrol’s Story of Women (1988) also broaches the subject, portraying an imperfect, average woman – played by the stunning, absolutely not average Isabelle Huppert – who begins to provide illegal abortions in Vichy France. Chabrol only shows the procedure through keyholes – a young boy serving as surrogate for audience and director – or in its bloody aftermath, with a sweating woman writhing in pain as she expels the foetus. Though this latter aesthetic choice could be understood as Chabrol’s plea for safe, legal abortions, the decision to largely relegate the actual termination of pregnancy from the screen remystifies it – a thing between women that a male gaze cannot understand.
Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), another Cannes-celebrated, male-authored film about illegal abortion that’s set in the past, subsumes the procedure into the invasive, all-encompassing control of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s state. The procedure, administered by an absolute scumbag, shows his hands half-working, half-caressing the vulnerable, terrified body of the young protagonist Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), and is shot with a clinical distance that defined the Romanian New Wave. Rather than an assertion of self against a system that legally required all women under 45 to be baby-making facilities for the state, it is just another series of cold, impersonal hoops for Gabita and the friend she has with her, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), to jump through. Both women have been scarred by the experience; it’s quite possible their friendship won’t survive it. Thus, there is no space given to even the smallest sense of relief – though the end of a pregnancy can bring many feelings, all valid even when they are contradictory, the miserabilism of the final scene dominates.
Female takes: choice and complexity
Films about abortion that are directed by women tend to embrace the ambivalence abortion can bring, or at least allow space for more complicated emotions and plot development. Gillian Armstrong’s eight-minute film One Hundred a Day (1973), made during her final year as a film student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, also focuses on a ‘group’ abortion – Leilia (Rosalie Fletcher), a young factory worker in the 1930s, goes to an elderly abortionist with her two friends in tow. Unlike Otilia, these women offer emotional support, reminding her that it’s common, safe and that she shouldn’t think of it as the loss of a baby.
Nonfiction shorts about abortion made by women around the same time, such as Amalie Rothschild’s It Happens to Us (1972) and Martha Stuart’s Women Who Have Had an Abortion (1972), were viewed as organising tools by their directors, and emphasised the material conditions of women of all races who sought out the procedure, giving subjects the room to speak frankly about the physical and emotional toll of pregnancy and child-rearing for women – and that sense of relief that can come with bodily autonomy.
Similarly, Agnès Varda’s radical feminist musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), which follows two women, Pomme and Suzanne, over a number of years, celebrates both sides of that autonomy: a woman can choose to have a child, a woman can choose not to bring a pregnancy to term. Although the section of the film set in Iran hasn’t aged terribly well – Pomme’s formerly progressive Iranian husband becomes the worst caricature of a super-traditional Eastern man – it does illustrate the changes in relationships that babies can bring, changes that are mostly the burden of the mother, not the father.
Gillian Robespierre’s full-throated support of abortion, Obvious Child (2014) – about a New York-based comedian named Donna Stern who breaks up with her boyfriend, has a drunken one-night stand, then a few weeks after discovers that she is pregnant – balances these strategies with humour, as Varda did. In one of many signs of hope in the film, Robespierre chose to make Donna’s one-night stand broadly likeable (he’s the exact opposite of a character like Mike, the “prick” who impregnates and then flakes out on driving Stacy Hamilton to get an abortion in Amy Heckerling’s 1982 Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Donna’s mother has also had an abortion, and it is treated as the only option. Though some would write this off as the typical privilege of a certain type of New York City resident, Portrait of a Lady on Fire stands as a reminder that the freedom to choose without guilt is the way it always was, and could be again.