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Saturday, April 1, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Abortion in movies, from 1918 to the...

Screen Grabs: Abortion in movies, from 1918 to the powerful new ‘Happening’

Plus: A tribute to French working-class hero Jean Gabin, and an Iranian 'Little Miss Sunshine' from the son of a legend.

While the dread term “abortion” was often been omitted entirely—as it so often is in life, even at pro-choice institutions that prefer less-triggering euphemisms—the subject has been addressed in movies at least as far back as 1918. Then, pioneering female director Lois Weber made Where Are My Children?, though its melodramatic indictment (of abortion as an alleged indulgence amongst irresponsible rich ladies) was dubious even at the time. The subject was one of many taboo ones banished from the US screen with the censorious Production Code’s arrival in the early 1930s, then began resurfacing as a grim, cautionary subplot in more “daring” 1960s mainstream films like The Group and Alfie—eventually playing the same role in lighter, later ones such as Dirty Dancing and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

While TV tackled it more frequently in recent decades, movies primarily focused on the subject remained rare until pretty recently, the exceptions usually being either foreign (British Vera Drake, Romanian 4 Months, 3 Weeks and Two Days, etc.) or independent (2020’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always). Then suddenly, this year, the dam seemed to burst:  At January’s Sundance Film Festival, often a bellwether for leading sociopolitical issues, three major features about abortion access played. Two told the same story: Documentary The Janes (coming out next month) and dramatization Call Jane (releasing in the fall) both chronicled the collective of Chicago women who orchestrated safe pregnancy-termination services in the years just before Roe v. Wade.

The third, Audrey Diwan’s Happening (which won the Golden Lion at Venice before Sundance), arrives in US theaters this Fri/13. It’s a French film—and indeed French cinema was dealing with abortion more frequently and frankly well before US filmmakers caught up. Nonetheless, that was still an illegal procedure (as it would remain for another dozen years) in 1963, when the film is set. It’s also when Annie Ernaux, who wrote the autobiographical-novel source material, had her own “back alley” abortion.

Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a college student from a working-class background, studying literature. She’s exceptionally bright, but takes nothing for granted—she knows it’s entirely up to her to carve out a future she wants, with no family money or connections to provide a fallback. Thus it’s a catastrophe when she discovers that she is pregnant, from an apparent first/only experience of sexual intercourse to date, with a boy met in another town. She doesn’t tell him or anyone else, at first; the speed with which peers are willing to brand a classmate as “loose” precludes that.

But there is no question in her mind of carrying the child to term: That would be the immediate, final end to all her hopes of a career and independent life. With the clock ticking, she has to find someone who can help. But even providing a lead to such illegal services can still land a person in prison. (As late as 1943, a French abortionist was guillotined, that figure portrayed 45 years later by Isabelle Huppert in Claude Chabrol’s Story of Women.) And should such subterranean resources be found, the risks remain high—not least, to the expectant woman’s health.

Happening is a drama in the classic French screen idiom of eschewing tonal hyperbole and over-explicit messaging in favor of a more low-key, naturalistic approach. But the rising panic Anne struggles to suppress from public view is palpable, nonetheless. If the movie sometimes makes her more willful, knowledgable, and clear-eyed than a person in her position probably would have been in 1963, we nonetheless believe it: As written and performed, this character is a thoroughly convincing self-made woman, anticipating a more liberated era she will no doubt help create. (In real life, Ernaux became a widely esteemed author and academic. She also eventually had two children.)

France does not seem likely to overturn its legalization of abortion (within 12 weeks of conception, specific exemptions allowed) anytime soon, though there is a considerable “pro-life” bloc. But those rights are under siege in other nations, and it looks like the US will shortly be turning back the clock half a century—which means options for many women here will soon be worse than they are in Russia, fer chrissakes. This isn’t the place to wade into the whole debate, but a film as powerful as Happening reminds that the past many conservatives would prefer we return to did not lack abortions. It just lacked safe, legal abortions. Happening opens Fri/13 at Bay Area theaters including the Opera Plaza, Metreon, Shattuck and Rafael.

Other movies arriving this weekend:

Gabin 118
A less punishing Gallic flashback is provided by this two-day tribute at the Roxie by Midcentury Productions to the actor who seemed to personify national character to the French themselves, more than any other before or since. It marks the 118th anniversary of his birth—not exactly a major landmark, but any excuse will do when it comes to Jean Gabin. The seven films on tap span the bulk of his screen career, though they avoid the more obvious titles (which were mostly seen in previous Roxie series, anyway).

Though he later played the occasional tycoon or magistrate, Gabin was always sharpest as the volatile but honorable working-class hero, often tragic but never self-pitying. His charm was “rough,” his acting so “natural” it could appear not to be acting—often the best kind. He started out as a music hall performer (not infrequently imitating Maurice Chevalier), a glimpse of which persona can be seen here in 1934’s Zouzou, where he costars with the imported American stage sensation Josephine Baker. After major hits like Pepe le Moko and La Grande Illusion (not in the current series), he was a big star, appearing in tailored vehicles like two by director Jean Gremillion, 1937 amour fou tale Gueule d’Amour aka Ladykiller and 1941’s Remorques aka Stormy Waters.

Between WW2 service stints (he’d also served in WW1), he tried Hollywood. But the two films made there—Archie Mayo’s 1942 Moontide plays the Roxie—were not successful, perhaps in part because his English was almost indecipherable. At least there he commenced a long-term involvement with Marlene Dietrich, which was still going on when they made their only film together: The 1947 Martin Roumagnac aka The Room Upstairs, in which she (as a faithless lover) reveals herself far more comfortable acting in French than he was out of it.

But Gabin’s star wouldn’t fully rebound until the mid-’50s, with later successes including two showcased here, doomed romance People of No Importance (1956) and caper comedy The Counterfeiters of Paris (1961). Though both the star and his films could get stodgy in later years, he remained popular and active right up to his death in 1976, at age 72. Somehow one expected him to be older, because Jean Gabin had seemed wearily seasoned by experience from the start. For full program/schedule info, click here.

Hit the Road
The son of famously banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, Panah Panhi’s first feature as writer-director offers a more jovially seriocomic version of the kind of minimalist storytelling often associated with Iranian cinema. A family is on a road trip, their dynamic playfully quarrelsome while at the same time laced with a tension that goes unexplained for a long time. Because middle-aged dad (Hassan Madjooni) is laid up in the back seat with a leg in a cast, a close-mouthed elder son (Amin Simiar) is driving, as his mother (Pantea Panahiha) tries to draw him out. Needing no such encouragement is the much-younger second son (Rayan Sarlak), a hyperactive, stir-crazy little terror whose antics are shrugged off by the others.

Working in an ultimately much more commercial style than one might expect, this Panahi keeps the political content indirect, even though it finally provides the whole raison d’etre. This is a Little Miss Sunshine-like ensemble seriocomedy that can border on glib, but is nonetheless ballasted by the unspoken truth of family separations necessitated by an oppressive regime. It’s an Iranian movie for people who think they don’t like Iranian movies—by a director whom one could easily imagine transitioning to non-Iranian ones. Hit the Road opens Fri/13 at theaters including the Opera Plaza, Shattuck and Rafael.

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