Happening (18, 100 minutes)
ne links abortion wars to this country, which for years turned a blind eye to exporting pregnant women to England, or to the American Midwest, parts of which are currently trying to overthrow years of progress and Roe vs Wade.
But France, home of the Simones – de Beauvoir and Veil – is certainly long enlightened in this regard. Well, not exactly.
It wasn’t until 1975, seven years after Britain and almost 50 years after it was approved in Sweden, that the French state finally decided to legalize abortion.
Up to this point parts of the country, particularly outside of Paris, remained deeply conservative and Catholic, and unmarried girls finding themselves in the family faced the same tough choices as in Ireland. Some were desperate enough to seek backyard abortions, which could, and often did, have horrific results.
Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, Audrey Diwan’s film compellingly recreates an era and a dilemma that must seem hopelessly obscure to young French women today.
It’s 1963, and student worker Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) has come to the provincial town of Angoulême to study literature. She is intelligent, ambitious and determined to escape her parents’ fate after watching them quarrel and bicker in her seedy cafe. Her life will be different, Anne thinks: Then the unthinkable will happen.
In a time and place when extramarital sex was strictly frowned upon, the ignorance of men and women about basic biology is startling. The boys seem to know a little more than the girls and Anne, who is naturally curious, allows herself to be persuaded into harmless experiments.
Unfortunately, there is a consequence and when Anne finds out she’s pregnant, everyone she turns to tells her in no uncertain terms that it’s her problem.
In a library, she surreptitiously stares at a textbook that shows a cross-section of a pregnant woman’s body, with the uterus magically expanding as the fetus grows. Anne looks out of the book at her belly in horror: the pregnancy happened on the eve of her exams and could now jeopardize everything she’s worked for, but she quickly discovers this is a scenario she’ll have to deal with on her own.
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The boy doesn’t want to know, and in the end neither does the medical profession. “I’m pregnant,” she tells a doctor she sees. “I want to continue my studies. That’s essential to me.” He distracts her by prescribing pills that he claims will “bring your period back,” but they’re actually drugs designed to boost the health of the embryo.
In the 1960s, the idea of a girl worrying about career and education seemed absurd to some. But Anne is desperate because she knows that having a child in her situation will shorten and limit her life. So she goes back to the doctor who first told her she was pregnant and asks for his help.
“You can’t ask that of me,” he tells her. “Anyone who helps can end up in prison. You also. And only if you are spared the worst. Every month a girl tries her luck and dies in excruciating pain. You don’t want to be that girl.”
He’s not kidding: in France, backyard abortifacies were rather poetically referred to as angel-makers, and the pain and suffering they often caused can only be imagined. But eventually, in her desperation, Anne will seek one of them faiseused’anges and have to live with the consequences.
Diwan handles all of this with great sensitivity and robust honesty. 1960s provincial France is nicely recreated, but not so well that the historical fuzz distracts from the central dilemma. Vartolomei is superb as Anna, a brave and resourceful young woman whose confidence is shattered by a biological catastrophe.
In all of these conversations, the word abortion is not mentioned once. Nor the novel idea that a woman in Anne’s predicament should have the last word on what happens to her body next.
Rating: four stars
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (15A, 107 mins)
The word meta, which I loathe, is hard to avoid when it comes to this frothy comedy inspired by the life, work and legend of Nicolas Cage.
That Con Air Always the good sport, Star plays himself in Tom Gormican’s film, or rather, a washed-up, histrionic version of himself about to give up acting for good when he receives a strange invitation. The self-confessed superfan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) has invited him to a party at his villa in Mallorca.
With a $1 million fee at stake, Cage leaves, but Javi has ties to a gangster family and trouble is brewing. It goes without saying that this is a deeply goofy film, but it’s also a pretty winning one: Cage never misses an opportunity to poke fun at himself, and makes several references to his widely recognized superpower — nouveau shamanistic acting.
Pascal is a willing accomplice, as is Sharon Horgan, who plays his scathingly sarcastic ex-wife, but this is Cage’s film and my favorite moment comes when he’s watching his old film guard Tess and jumps up in terror at one of his signature sudden outbursts.
Rating: three stars
Playground (no certificate, IFI, 72 minutes)
We like to think of our children wrapped in the bubble wrap of parental protection, but the playground can be a jungle, a hotbed of wild resentment.
This theme is impressively explored in Laura Wandel’s Belgian drama playground, in which Maya Vanderbeque plays the role of seven-year-old Nora, who doesn’t like her school. Nora is shy and has trouble fitting in. Then she sees her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) being bullied on the playground.
A gang led by a boy who clearly has mental health issues picked up Abel, beat him up and threw him in trash cans. When Nora decides to intervene, she makes things worse for both of them, but her sense of morality is so strong that she can’t help it.
Performed with incredible naturalism by his young actors, Wandel’s film is shot from a young child’s perspective, making even the best intentions of adults seem irrelevant to the primal battle that takes place over lunchtime.
Little children at play always look cute from afar, but up close you can see the dark rivalries, Darwinian struggles for supremacy.
Rating: four stars
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/movies/movie-reviews/happening-movie-review-compelling-french-abortion-drama-a-stark-reminder-of-darker-times-41574029.html Happening film review: Captivating French abortion drama, a stark reminder of darker times