Portraying Abortion in <em>Portrait of a Lady on Fire</em>

Portraying Abortion in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Cassia Roth

Film and TV portrayals of abortion in the last decade have become both more prevalent and complex. Take the different abortion storylines over the course of HBO’s series Girls (love it or hate it). In Season 1’s “Vagina Panic,” Jessa is scheduled to have an abortion when she conveniently has her “period” in a bar’s bathroom. Although the characters use the word abortion throughout the episode, they don’t discuss that Jessa had a miscarriage (not just a heavy period), and, most importantly, Jessa’s “period” sidesteps the entire abortion experience altogether. By Season 4’s “Close-Up,” however, the character Mimi-Rose has an abortion without telling her partner. She experiences the decision and procedure as a matter-of-fact choice she made in relation to her current life situation. She undergoes an abortion and then moves on with her life. Jane the Virgin, Friday Night Lights, and Sex Education have also discussed the topic in nuanced ways (as have many more).

Juno movie poster. (Flickr)

On the big screen, there’s also been a shift. Juno (2007) introduces a protagonist who decides to give her baby up for adoption. Although the movie shows real choices that are hard to make, it sidesteps abortion by focusing on adoption. Obvious Child (2014) represents a shift in fictional portrayals. The movie shows how people don’t always use condoms when we should and that the decision to have an abortion can be both simple to make and still emotionally difficult. Grandma (2015) is a buddy comedy in which grandmother Elle and grandchild Sage band together and crisscross Los Angeles to get $630 so Sage can get an abortion. Hijinks ensue and love prevails, but the show demonstrates how abortion is already restricted for many people in the U.S. who don’t have rich mothers or strong social networks. I can’t wait to see the new film Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) about a teenager traveling to New York for an abortion. And there are many others.

But most shows or films never depict an actual abortion scene. The tragic 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2008) about two women’s desperate attempts to get an abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania, where abortion was totally banned, is one exception. But its male director presents the abortion scene as akin to rape. As one film scholar writes, the movie shows the sleazy doctor with “his hands half-working, half-caressing the vulnerable, terrified body of the young protagonist Gabita.” That’s why I was pleasantly shocked when I witnessed the nuanced and complex abortion plotline in the newly released film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (now available to stream on Hulu). The film is a feminist love story set in 1770s Brittany. Marianne, a painter, is commissioned to paint Héloïse, the daughter of an aristocrat who does not want to marry. The two women fall in love and become lovers. The abortion plotline involves the family’s maid, Sophie. Marianne and Héloïse help her get an abortion and recover from the procedure.

YouTube still from 4Months, 3Weeks, and 2Days. (©Pensare Films/YouTube)

Director Céline Sciamma says the abortion story was a “two-step scene.” There’s the abortion itself and then the painting of the abortion, when Marianne paints Héloïse and Sophie as if Héloïse was the abortionist and Sophie was again undergoing the procedure. In fact, the abortion is more like a four- or five-step scene. We find out Sophie is pregnant when she helps Marianne with painful period cramps in the middle of the night. That’s when the maid tells the artist she hasn’t had her period in three months, and that she’s waiting for Héloïse’s mother to leave for a few days to “take care of it.” The next day, the three women go on a walk, and Sophie runs back and forth between Marianne and Héloïse who push her to run faster and faster. Then, the three women search for a plant and make an herbal tea. After drinking it, Sophie hangs from her arms until she falls to the floor (perhaps using gravity to facilitate the miscarriage). These folk remedies are unsuccessful, so the women go to a local female healer who makes an herbal poultice and performs a manual abortion on Sophie in her small home, filled with children. For those of us who study the history of abortion and women’s health, these methods will ring familiar.

It’s the abortion scene that gets me. While Sophie lies on the bed, grimacing in pain as the midwife inserts her hand into Sophie’s vagina, a small baby lies next to her grabbing at her face, her hands, cooing and gurgling like little babies do. For some, this may seem like a heavy-handed way to demonstrate the nuances of abortion and motherhood, but as Rachel Syme in the New Yorker argues, “Where else would a baby be in a crowded home except lying on the bed? Where else would the procedure take place?” Yes, the film, in the words of the director, is “telling the audience that abortion is not about not liking kids. It’s about having the kids you want, when you want.” What better way to do this than include a child in the scene itself?

In my book, I argue for a nuanced reading of the intertwined nature of motherhood and abortion, and I’ve told the story of Maria Vieira da Silva, a Brazilian woman in the early twentieth century whose child was in the room with her when she underwent the abortion procedure that would ultimately kill her. I often imagined what that looked like, but I had never put her child on the bed with her. Now I like to imagine that Maria held her son’s hand the way that Sophie held that of the midwife’s baby.

The night after her abortion, when Sophie is lying down, Héloïse asks her if she feels well enough to pose for a painting. She says yes. Héloïse takes the role of the midwife, Sophie as herself, while Marianne paints the abortion. With that, the director provides a powerful remembrance of what all three women had gone through together. Yet I felt that, to some extent, Sophie slips away in the scene. She consents to be painted, to “sit” for Marianne, but it is Héloïse’s idea and Marianne’s brush. Her lower social position — she’s the servant, after all — reminds us that female “sisterhood” (if that even exists) is marked by class (and racial) differences. Here, I wanted Sophie to take center stage — it is her idea to paint the experience, her giving directions to Héloïse and Marianne.

The movie is powerful. The men are few and far between, their presence more of an allusion (as in Sophie’s pregnancy) than real flesh-and-blood. And the abortion scene is powerful. It provides the viewer with an abortion story, however imperfect, that’s real, rooted in lived, embodied experience, and made by and for the female gaze. It’s an abortion story that opens up new ways to visualize what it means to face an unwanted pregnancy, providing a space for reproductive freedom in a world that’s slowly squeezing it out.

Featured image caption: YouTube still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire. (Courtesy Neon Films/YouTube)

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.