The fashions, fabrics and eye-crossingly patterned wallpapers of the 1970s abound in “Angry Annie,” a French period piece practically painted in avocado green and Le Creuset orange, with hand-crocheted accessories for good measure. Would that the rest of Blandine Lenoir’s rousing abortion drama felt quite so dated. Instead, in a year where the overturning of Roe v. Wade signifies a major step back in the collective fight for women’s reproductive rights, this story of women banding together to assert their bodily autonomy in an age of sexual revolution feels all too timely: not merely a compelling reminder of how things were, but a warning of how they could yet be.
Bright and predominantly hopeful in tone, and powered by a typically lovable performance from recent César winner Laure Calamy (“Call My Agent”) as a meek wife and mother emboldened by an underground women’s movement, this is a less visceral, more crowdpleasing account of French abortion-rights history than Audrey Diwan’s celebrated “Happening” — which was set a decade earlier than Lenoir’s film, before much community around the cause had taken clear shape. But it’s no soft lob either, impressing with its inclusive, observant view of how abortion law affects women (and men) across a wide range of ages, social positions and domestic situations, and advocating for a continued collaboration in defending and enacting it.
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Tonally and narratively, “Angry Annie” is closer in spirit to this year’s Sundance-premiered “Call Jane,” its fictionalized angle on France’s real-life Movement for Liberty of Abortion and Contraception (MLAC) unfolding not dissimilarly to writer-director Phyllis Nagy’s take on America’s comparable Jane Collective. Such broadly recognizable parallel points will help Lenoir’s lovingly crafted, heartily acted film attract global distributor interest following its premiere in Locarno’s Piazza Grande showcase. (Some might want to reconsider the slightly comic-sounding English-language title, which doesn’t quite convey the film’s communal focus and outlook.) French outfit Diaphana Films will release the film domestically in late November.
Introductory title cards detail the 1973 establishment of MLAC, a movement aiming to assist women with safe illegal abortions and access to birth control, with local chapters across the country staffed by predominantly female volunteers and assisted by liberal-minded doctors, many of them male. Mild-mannered mother-of-two Annie (Calamy) isn’t much for activism, even ducking out of workers’ rights meetings at the small-town mattress factory where she holds down an uninspiring job: “I’m not into all that political stuff,” she says, and her loving but unimaginative husband Philippe (Yannick Choirat) likes it that way.
When she falls pregnant with an unwanted third child, however, she’s forced to think of her body as a political space. Shyly attending a covert MLAC meeting and going through with a successful, mostly painless Karman’s-method abortion, she’s surprised by the camaraderie and conviction of the women in the group, while her mind is opened to feminist theories of bodily discovery and the female orgasm. Soon enough, she’s volunteering with them, talking other women through the patriarchally instilled feelings and shame and guilt she once held herself, and sensing a new life’s calling altogether — to the growing consternation of Philippe, who may support a woman’s right to choose, but is less keen when that upends a long-held household hierarchy.
The goal, of course, is to get abortion rights secured in law — yet “Angry Annie” turns most interesting and emotionally nuanced when that very victory comes at some cost to the validation and belonging that women like Annie have found in groups like MLAC. “They won’t have the solidarity we had,” she mutters, arguing that a clinically delivered legal abortion will be marked by respect but not “tenderness,” while others fear that legalizing abortion won’t help many women in need if the procedure isn’t covered by national healthcare. Even the most right-on male doctors, meanwhile, dismiss the feminist creed of MLAC in their pursuit of more sweeping political gestures. (“You don’t understand,” one dares to mansplain to a woman questioning their bullish approach to activism.) Lenoir and Axelle Ropert’s screenplay may bend towards progress and uplift, but it isn’t without its barbs: There’s a pleasing consideration here of the conditions and complexities of change.
The warmth and good humor of Calamy’s performance protects “Angry Annie” from feeling like a dramatized debate at such junctures. Even at its most didactic, the film feels populated with credible, complicated characters rather than convenient case studies. One particularly moving scene sees a woman, reasoning that she hasn’t the means or the energy for a seventh child, wrestling aloud with her own moral qualms as she undergoes the procedure: “I have no right, but I’m too tired,” she weeps. For others, like the nervous teen calmed by Annie’s guidance, it’s a chance to begin adult life on her own terms; elsewhere, a young woman backs out after realizing her husband wants the termination more than she does. There’s no one-size-fits-all story in this open-hearted, empathetic film: Choice is the common factor that rights disparate lives in different ways. That seems obvious enough, though with lawmakers and activists restaging this battle half a century later, it appears to bear repeating.
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