Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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LORANT DEUTSCH, EMMANUELLE DEVOS IN THE LAW

From the camps to the corridors of French power, fighting for women with nerves of steel

This French film has Emmanuelle Devos playing Simone Veil, the French health minister in the mid-Seventies largely responsible for the legalization of abortion in France in 1975.La loi seeks to give legal and political maneuvering some of the edge of a film noir. It's a made-for-TV movie. Well, Christian Faure's 2000 made-for-TV Just a Question of Love/Juste une question d'amour was a winner, a warm and touching gay coming of age film that was a hit and consciousness-raiser in France (available on US DVD). Faure has made fourteen TV movies since then; this is his fifteenth. This time Faure he landed one of France's most interesting and important film actresses of her generation, Emmanuelle Devos, as his lead.

During the discussion of abortion Veil was subject to personal attacks, but the film also enlivens things by focusing on her issues with Secrétaire d'État à la Condition féminine Francoise Giroud (Laure Killing), also, like Veil, Jewish, who made things harder by making it a feminist issue of woman's right over her body, while Veil wanted to focus only on the health issue, the death and suffering caused by illegal abortions. (Veil gets Giroud sidelined.) Meanwhile the film sets up a parallel with a crusading young woman photo-journalist, Diane Riestrof (Flore Bonaventura), who becomes involved in the issue, fighting a feminist battle of her own to be accepted as a serious journalist in a male world of tough newsmen of the magazine L'Express. Diane's scenes take us to the "front," to young women in hospital after botched abortions, and to the campaigners on the pro-abortion side and also the pro-lifers. Diane's chief opponent is Rémy Bourdon (Lannick Gautry), whose news territory she's stepping on. Her ally: Miriam (Anne Girouard), L'Express' librarian. Veil's right hand man in her work is Dominique Le Vert (Lorànt Deutsch). Marceline Loridan (Aurélia Petit) is her best, longtime friend, also a survivor of the camps.

American viewers may find negotiating this melange of figures easier than steering the way through French politics. But we have been getting more of a taste of that in movies recently with the likes of La conquête (2011), about Sarkozy's rise to power; the witty The French Minister (2013) about presidential in-fighting, and, best of the three as a film, The Minister/L'exercice de l'État (also 2011), about a troubled working-class French cabinet minister, directed by Pierre Schoeller and starring the terrific Olivier Gourmet. These show how good the French are at making films about politics. But this, while about a crucial subject, is the kind of film that has lines like "Maybe we should avoid talking to the Left until we find what the Center is going to do."

This is a new kind of role for Devos, who has sometimes played sensitive, eccentric, or insecure women. Here she is cool, elegant, and invincible playing a woman who, as we're told, lost her brother and both parents in the Holocaust and later close remaining relatives in an accident. Miriam, the L'Express documents boss, remarks that she thinks Diane Veil's faraway look is because of all the dead in her life. She has a husband though (Lionel Abelanski) and a small child, neither of whom she has much time for here: the film begins in medias res, and is a portrait of an issue and its heroine, not of a life.

No question of Emmanuelle Devos' character's qualifying for a Jewish Film Festival. Simone Veil was a French survivor of both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, eighteen when the war ended, who returned to France and went on to be a train-blazer in French politics at the highest level decades later, rising to the ministry after years as an attorney and in the Ministry of Justice responsible for prisons, working for improved conditions. She had worked to make the Pill legal in 1967. Note that in France abortion had been criminalized since the Napoleonic Code, and the Vichy régime made it a a capital crime. Veil says in the film there are 300,000 illegal abortions a year in France, and seven deaths a day from them. Her chief opponent causes a stir during the government debate (which Veil starts off) by playing a cassette tape of the loud, fast heartbeat of a fetus only a few weeks old. The three-day debate is punishing. Devos gives a display of sand-froid that is memorable; it's another feather in this wonderful actress' cap.

Using dp Jean-Pierre Hervé's camera work to present scenes at once formal and intimate, Christian Faure delivers a cool, elegant historical film that's well-paced and involving -- if, that is, the issues matter to you and political maneuvering is your thing. Screenwriters Fanny Burdino, Samuel Doux, and Mazarine Pingeo on the whole manage to enliven matters that of necessity involve a good deal of formal exposition. Emmanuelle Devos, Lorànt Deutsch, Flore Bonaventura and the rest never disappoint.

The Law/La loi: le combat d'une femme pour toutes les femmes,87 mins., was shown on French television on 26 November 2014, and was nominated for a Crystal Globe, Best Television Film or Television Series (Meilleur téléfilm ou série télévisée). Screened for this review as part of the 2015 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 23 July-9 August 2015.

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