This French film shows the strength of solidarity between women beautifully.

Walking into Annie Colère, shown at the Athena Film Festival, I was anticipating an uncomfortable and sad watch. However, I was met with an uplifting and fun feminist tale of one Mouvement pour la Liberté de l’Avortement et la Contraception (Movement for the Freedom of Abortion and Contraception, or MLAC) group in France in 1973 and ’74 before abortion was legalized. The film centers around Annie (Laure Calamy) and begins with her espoir for an abortion. She has two kids, 16 and nine, and can’t afford to raise another with her husband, Phillippe. She finds the MLAC group, where she encounters two other women attempting to receive abortions that week. Annie gets her abortion at the end of the next week, and in payment to the MLAC group, she comes back to volunteer for them. The group performs free abortions for as many women as they can. They perform the abortions illegally, but not secretly; they want the government to know what they are doing so the men in power understand the grandeur of the problem. At MLAC, Annie starts off by making the other women coffee at the beginning of meetings, but, by the end of the film, she begins performing the abortions herself. The film finishes with the legalization of abortion in France and the moral dilemma that the MLAC group then faces: is it ethical to allow women to be treated in such a sterile—and sometimes hostile—way by the healthcare workers and doctors at the hospital?

During each abortion, at least three volunteers are in the room: one performing the abortion by aspiration, one pumping air out of the tank in order to create a vacuum for the aspirator, and one comforting the woman receiving the abortion. The first abortion we see is Annie’s own at the start of the film. Calamy’s performance in this scene is nothing but stunning and exceptional. You can see the fear in her eyes as she is very worried that the procedure will go wrong, or that it will hurt. One of the volunteers, Monique (Rosemary Standley), repeatedly tells her “respirez” and “restez avec moi,” translating to “breathe” and “stay with me.” Monique also begins to sing for Annie, a song entitled “L’Hymne des Femmes” (Hymn of Women). The refrain of the song, written by Parisien feminists in 1970, goes as follows: “Levons-nous femmes esclaves / Et brisons nos entraves / Debout, debout, debout!” (8 Mars). Translating to: “Rise up, us enslaved women, and break from our shackles and stand up, stand up, stand up!” The closed captioning on the film did not provide a translation for the song, or even the title of what Monique was singing, so for those unfamiliar with the song, or with the French language, it sounds almost as if she’s singing a children’s lullaby, like Alouette. Upon closer inspection, and during the credits, we see that the song is in fact the Hymn of Women and we see the lyrics on the screen. The song was a perfect and deliberate choice made by director Blandine Lenoir.

While the movie centers on the oppression of women in France, it is applicable to those in other countries (like our own United States). As the plot progresses, we encounter two men who volunteer for the MLAC as the doctors that perform the abortions, Jean (Damien Chapelle) and Denis (Oscar Lesage), who have differing opinions on who should perform the abortions. Helène (Zita Hanrot), a nurse at a local hospital who volunteers and helps with the abortions at MLAC, wants to be able to perform the abortions, but Jean and Denis disagree; they say it’s not safe because she never went to medical school. We see their opinions in direct opposition to that of the only female doctor on the team, Claudine (India Hair). She argues that Helène should be able to perform the abortion if she chooses, and eventually trains Annie how to perform the procedure herself. Jean and Denis use their power and authority as men to try to overpower the women in the group, as Helène points out. However, the women brilliantly stop it from becoming a men’s club. After all, it is women they are intending to help. Jean and Denis demonstrate an idea we see all over the world: that even in places where women’s voices are supposed to be heard and supported, we are spoken over by the louder and more respected voices of men. Helène points us in the direction of neglecting the overarching power dynamic of our patriarchal society and joining in solidarity with other women.

What becomes clear throughout the film is the strength of the bond between women. I think calling it a sisterhood diminishes its power. It’s more than sharing a pair of pants, it’s a collective agreement to protect women and fight for their right to choose. So, in the end, when abortion is legalized, there is a debate over whether or not they should continue to perform abortions. The doctors in the group, mostly Jean and Denis, that perform the abortions think that it’s medically safer to perform them in the hospital. However, we are brought back to the idea that abortion is not covered by health care. Not all women can afford one when they are not free. Minors would need parental permission. The women would be faced with misogyny and blatant slut-shaming from doctors, unlike what their experiences would be like at MLAC. This poses a poignant question to us, as the audience, of how we would like to be treated in any medical scenario. Hospitals are such sterile places in which maybe there is no room for warmth, but I would like to argue that a doctor should express basic compassion and respect for their patient regardless of what is afflicting them. This is exactly what Helène and Annie agree upon.

Now, I know very little about film. I am a film enjoyer, not a film understander (I also call them movies, but here I will say film because I think that is what it technically is… I have no idea what the difference is). However, I will say the cinematography was beautiful. Not only was the script wonderfully thought out and created, but the shots demonstrated such beauty in fear. During the abortions, instead of focusing on the procedure and what the doctor is doing, the camera centers on the woman receiving the abortion. This, in my opinion, is the most central and key component of the entire movie. We see each woman’s fear, joy, anger, etc. expressed through just their facial expressions while they are receiving the aspiration. It gives us the chance to empathize with the women and understand what they are going through and what they are grieving. Even if you have never gone through what each individual woman went through in the film, or if you have never had an abortion, it is so easy to comprehend how they feel. The framing of these scenes is absolutely beautiful and makes the movie.

Overall, this was one of the most impactful films I have seen thus far and incredibly reminiscent of Annie Ernaux’s L’Événement. As a director would say, no notes!

Poster via author