Annie Ernaux describes her abortion like this, “I could see the tiles between my thighs. I pushed with all my strength. It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord.” It was 1963. Abortion was illegal. She had already tried and failed to do it herself with a knitting needle. For months, she had been unable to find an abortionist. No doctor will refer her. Her friends abandon her. One says to another, “Do you want to go to prison with her? It is none of our business.”
Ernaux’s memoir takes us deep into the months of her own life when, at age 23, she discovered that she was pregnant and knew that she would rather die than have the baby. Her writing is “as emotional as it is furious.” She captures the reality of what a compulsory pregnancy would have meant to her. In doing so, she enlarges and clarifies the what the debate is about.
At 12 weeks, she is referred to a woman who does abortions in a third-floor walk-up apartment in the outskirts of Paris. The technique is to insert a probe into her uterus, pack the vagina with gauze to hold the probe in place, and then wait, hoping the probe will irritate the uterus and stimulate labor and delivery. The procedure is done without anesthesia and the camera stays close-up on her face, contorted by pain and determination. She is a woman who knows what she wants and needs, a woman who would rather die than have a baby.
The first time, it doesn’t work. She returns to the abortionist who tries again. The next day, she expels the baby into the toilet in her dorm bathroom. A terrified friend cuts the cord. She keeps bleeding and is rushed to hospital where, grudgingly and disparagingly, they save her life.
The memories haunt her. Simply reading about an abortion plunges her into “a state of shock that shatters thoughts and images, as if words had metamorphosed into a maelstrom of emotions.”
Forty years later, she writes a memoir full of casually delivered tidbits of searing introspection. The week after she found out that she was pregnant, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. “By then,” she writes, “I had lost interest in that sort of thing.” To write it, she reconstructs events by visiting the places where the occurred, reading old journals, dredging her memory, and trying to find words to convey the horror, desperation, and alienation. The writing is hard work. In reading, one can feel some agony in each word. She thinks, “Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing.”
Now, 20 years after the book, her story has been made into psychological thriller of a movie. Anne is played with disarming vulnerability by Anamaria Vartolomei. The camera is seldom more than two feet from Vartolomei. Sometimes it trails behind her, so we can see the world that she sees, a world in which people carry on with their daily lives, their schoolwork, their flirting. Often, it offers close-ups of her face or body, her body as she sees it, in the mirror, as she studies it, looking for external signs of what is going on within. We see her intimately, unsentimentally. Her expressive face and posture capture every fleeting thought and emotion. Most are bleak. There is no soundtrack, no sugar coating.
In early scenes, we see Anne in class, nailing an assignment. We see her flirting at a club where all the men want her. She is smart, confident, free-thinking, and determined to escape her working class background. Her parents run a bistro. Her mother does the laundry by hand. She is the smartest one in her school class.
We see her inserting the knitting needle with a mirror and flashlight between her legs. The camera zooms in on her face, her agony, and we picture the knitting needle searching for its target. She thinks she succeeds. The doctor tells her she hasn’t, “I wish I could confirm. The fetus withstood it.” To her look of defeat and despair, he responds, “Miss, accept it. You have no choice.”
In one scene, she swims out to sea where the current is strong. The camera, as always, is right with her, at the roiling surface of the water that threatens to engulf both swimmer and camera.
Unable to concentrate at school, her grades fall. When her teacher notices that she looks sick, she says, “Yes, a disease that only women get. It turns them into housewives.”
She has no money. She cannot talk to her parents or girlfriends. A male friend finds a friend who had an abortion. She gets a phone number, makes an appointment. Because the pregnancy has progressed and she is at 12 weeks, the abortion will be more dangerous. And expensive. She sells her books to raise the money.
The book and movie are, among other things, essays on class distinctions. When Anne is taken to the hospital after hemorrhaging, she is treated rudely. The next day, the doctors and nurses apologize and chide her for not informing them that she is a student and thus, as the nurse notes, the same class as the doctor. Had she informed them, she would have been treated with more respect. We learn that the doctors who care for post-abortion complications can classify them as “miscarriage” or “abortion.” If they call it “abortion,” the woman could go to jail. Once they realize that she is a college student, the categorize hers as a miscarriage. She notes, laconically, “the assumption prevailing among ‘humble people’ that ‘those in high places’ enjoy the right to place themselves above the law. We see how the poor bear more of the burden of restricted access to abortion.
The events took place when abortion was illegal. The book was written after legalization when we thought the fear, isolation, and stigmatization were things of the past. The film is conscious of the precariousness of the current moment in which we are turning the clock back. Telling the story, showing the reality, takes phenomenal courage by the author, director, and actors. This tale is essential reading and viewing to understand what is at stake.