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Women Filming for Their Lives

Sandrine Bonnaire and Anamaria Vartolomei in Audrey Diwan’s Happening (2021)

There is simply no way it could have been planned, but this week is ending with what could almost be read as a coordinated response to Monday’s news that the U.S. Supreme Court intends to overturn Roe v. Wade. Friday sees not only the opening of Audrey Diwan’s Happening, the story of a young woman’s pursuit of an illegal abortion in 1963 France, but also the launch of a cluster of feminist film series in the U.S. and Europe.

In France, where abortion wasn’t legalized until 1975, Happening “has led artists and activists to speak up about the taboo they feel still surrounds the procedure,” reports Laura Cappelle for the New York Times. In the U.S., the film based on author Annie Ernaux’s chronicle of her own experience—having undergone an unsafe abortion, she wound up in a hospital where she nearly bled to death—will likely read as “a stark portent of things to come,” suggests IndieWire’s Anne Thompson.

For Caroline Godard at Literary Hub, the “most horrifying part of Happening—both the film and the book—is the utter everydayness of this experience. Ernaux’s story was, and still is, identical to those of many people seeking to end their pregnancies for any number of reasons.” Talking to Clara Miranda Scherffig at Screen Slate, Diwan says that she doesn’t want to audiences to watch Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) as she’s shunned by her friends and turned away by doctors before she finally finds an abortionist, but to be her. “Let’s see, step by step, minute after minute, how can we embody that experience?” she proposed to Ernaux. “It was a great and blessed collaboration.”

Diwan tells Caitlin Quinlan at Reverse Shot that when she first met Ernaux, the acclaimed author told her that “out of all her books, this was the only one that journalists wouldn’t talk or write about . . . There is a strong relationship between this topic and silence, and silence is the best weapon for people who don’t want the world to change, people who want the world to go backwards.” Writing for Vanity Fair, Lisa Wong Macabasco points out that, while nearly one in four American women will undergo an abortion before they turn forty-five, cinema has remained relatively silent on the topic. Among the notable exceptions to the rule, notes Macabasco, is Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020).

Eliza Hittman’s Berlinale Silver Bear winner is one of ten features curator Emma Myers has lined up for It Happens to Us, a series opening tomorrow and running through May 21 at New York’s Metrograph. We can probably assume that the title is meant to echo that of Diwan’s film and that the “Us” refers to American women. “Spanning the silent era to the present day, this series surveys depictions of unintended pregnancy in American narrative cinema,” writes Myers. “Whether fraught with or free of moral judgment, these stories reflect, and other times oppose, the prevailing politics and mores of their time.”

Also starting tomorrow, Film Forum will dedicate a two-week, twenty-one-film retrospective to Swedish actress, director, and novelist Mai Zetterling, who first broke through internationally when she appeared in Torment (1944), directed by Alf Sjöberg and written by Ingmar Bergman. In the early 1960s, Zetterling turned to writing books and directing films, beginning with the antiwar fable The War Game (1963), which won a Golden Lion for Best Short Film in Venice.

With Loving Couples (1964), in which three pregnant women look back on their sex lives; Night Games (1966), a study of neurosis so explicit that, when it was screened in Venice, police closed the theater to the public; and The Girls (1968), starring Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, and Gunnel Lindblom as actresses taking their production of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata on the road, Zetterling directed what many have referred to as her “feminist trilogy.” The Edinburgh Film Guild suggests that Zetterling “arguably deserves credit for being the first director of explicitly feminist films targeted at mainstream audiences—even if she herself decried the title of ‘feminist film director’ as a patronizing label.”

Zetterling shared a resistance to be pegged as a feminist filmmaker with two contemporaries, Agnès Varda and Chantal Akerman. Tomorrow in Berlin, silent green will present two of Varda’s installations before screening her 1985 film Vagabond, starring Sandrine Bonnaire—who, as it happens, plays Anne’s concerned yet distant mother in Happening. The event offers a foretaste of The Third Life of Agnès Varda, an exhibition at silent green and a film series at the Kino Arsenal running from June 9 through July 20. The series Your Loving Mother: Five by Chantal Akerman, in the meantime, is on at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York through Sunday.

For the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinematheque, Yasmina Price has programmed In the Images, Behind the Camera: Women’s Political Cinema, 1959–1992, a series running from tomorrow through May 12. At Hyperallergic, Dan Schindel points out that, in her selection of films directed by women from the Global South and its diasporas, Price has placed “a particular emphasis on rarely seen and/or recently restored films. Existing within a leftist space is no guarantee that female voices get their due, and so on multiple levels, this program acts as a valuable historical corrective.” Also starting tomorrow but running through May 10 in Vienna, the Austrian Film Museum series La lotta non è ancora finita: Feminist Cinema from Italy offers “a kaleidoscope of forms, languages, and media including militant and experimental films as well as TV documentaries and features that have never before been screened with subtitles for an international audience.”

Currently online and accessible worldwide is Mulheres: Uma Outra Historia, a program curated by the feminist film journal Another Gaze and the nonprofit Cinelimite. The selection of six short documentaries made by Brazilian female filmmakers between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s offers “a revelatory insight into the lives of women in the country during a period of social revolution, charting the influence of a growing feminist movement at every level of society, from the chambers of the National Congress to the brothels of the red-light district,” writes Rachel Pronger in the Notebook.

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