(Searcher) Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Radical Portrayal of Abortion

Abortion & Film

Abortion, especially within the US/Hollywood context, has seemingly been accompanied by an oddly untenable coldness and violence since film’s inception. While this is not surprising in a post-Roe v Wade America, it is important to consider the sheer size and scope of portrayals of medical abortions in cinema. Journalists Katrina Kimport and Gretchen Sisson of the University of California, San Francisco specifically sought to provide numerical data on this representation, finding “300 examples of plotlines involving abortion decisions in film and television over the past 100 years. Fourteen percent of plotlines included the death of a woman who considered getting an abortion, whether or not she obtained one. Frequently, these deaths were the result of violence: Characters committed suicide or were killed either while contemplating what to do about their pregnancies or after getting an abortion.” The incongruent fixation on the woman’s “contemplation” over receiving an abortion or the possibility of death or pain, as a result, can be seen at best as misleading and at worst malicious. In reality, as Gretchen Sisson explains, around “930,160 abortions were provided in clinical settings” and furthers “the risk of major complications is 0.2 percent.” The tension between film and TV’s portrayal of abortion and reality reifies the importance of discussing accurate and positive representations of this important medical practice, especially those that resist the cold and misleading tropes of abortion in the United States. This is articulated beautifully in Elana Spivack’s piece “The Two-Pronged Genius of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s” Abortion Scene”.

A Portrait of a Lady on Fire

While the core plot of A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma, follows a lesbian affair between a portrait painter, Marianne, who is commissioned to paint an affluent, aristocrat, Héloïse, before she is to be wedded off, the movie has much larger points to make. Set in 18th century France, Sciamma addresses themes of sexuality, feminism, the “female gaze”, and even abortion, spawning a wave of commentary surrounding the sub-plot of the housemade, Sophie, who receives an abortion. In Spivack’s article analyzing the abortion plotline, she makes two interesting points that I want to further emphasize.

First, Spivack analyzes the use of cinematography to juxtapose the traditional, sterile portrayal of abortions (and perhaps medical procedures in general) with a portrayal of color and warmth. In most tellings of abortion, the scenery is as sterile as the medical equipment being used to perform the procedure. When we think of abortions, we imagine grey walls, fluorescent lights, steel instruments, empty noise, and fear. However, Sciamma plays with this expectation, exploring the subject of abortion under the warmth of a roaring fire and soft bed on which Sophie rests. In Spivack’s words, “The film’s painterly cinematography adds an intimate, expressive layer to the scene”, drawing the audience closer to our main characters and their experiences. Rather than framing abortions as dangerous and scary, the movie seemingly reclaims the connotation of abortions by humanizing it within the lives of our main characters.

Second, Spivack calls attention to the physical abortion that is performed following the herbal scene on the beach. As it is being performed, the audience is watching Sophie struggle and experience pain throughout the abortion. The use of the close-up on Sophie’s face forces us to unflinchingly process the pain she feels, while simultaneously evoking a sense of happiness as a baby that is sat on the bed next to Sophie brings her to laugh. This is further emphasized by the conversation between Marianne and Héloïse, in which Héloïse encourages Marianne to watch the abortion. Rather than shying away, the audience and the characters take part in actively witnessing the experience. Abortion is not this boogeyman that ought to be feared, but rather a medical practice that should be confronted as such. To Spivack, “the act of witnessing something so unflinchingly becomes profound.” Looking specifically at the inclusion of the baby alongside Sophie, this scene provides an interesting analysis of what a baby is, the living being next to Sophie’s face, and the fetus, which is not even shown. In Sciamma’s eyes, the baby and fetus are not one and the same, dispelling the common anti-choice argument that abortion kills children. The choices of cinematography help reclaim the problematic framing of abortions and provide a warm environment to explore the vulnerable moment.

A point that isn’t raised in the article but I wish to further consider is how the subject of abortion is discussed between the characters. Upon revealing that Sophie has missed her period for a couple months, Marianne quietly and simply asks if Sophie wishes to have kids, to which she replies no. What follows, without question or contemplation, is the process of Sophie receiving an abortion. Rather than dwelling on the decision or ramifications, Sciamma emphasizes the experience itself. I believe this further supports Sciamma’s point that A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a radical depiction of abortion that legitimate and destigmatizes abortions as a choice, reinforces the position of women as the locus of power, and forces the audience to resist the urge to need a “justification” for the abortion rather than not wanting children in itself. No violent death of the mother nor exaggerated regret. Rather, through the cinematography, we can explore the happiness and love of Sophie and the other main characters while simultaneously deconstructing the mythos around abortions. Thus, Spivack’s article does a beautiful job at articulating all three points.

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