Vague Visages is proud to be an official media partner for ArteKino Festival 2018. Its goal is to offer cinephiles and all those curious about cinema a selection of the most original and stimulating recent European productions. Throughout December, numerous European film critics will provide coverage for Vague Visages.
Few taboo subjects continue to inspire quite as much vitriol, from both sides of the argument, as abortion. As Catholic-controlled Ireland struggled through its own contentious debate over whether to legalize terminations earlier this year, the streets were strewn with photos of tiny, bloody corpses, screaming at passers-by to save them, while vans drove around blasting out hymns with lyrics about “baaaaabies, beautiful baaaabies.”
Credit, then, to German filmmaker Anne Zohra Berrached (Two Mothers), whose sophomore feature tackles the issue head on, with equal disregard for the ideological concerns of either hardcore pro-choicers or hardcore pro-lifers. 24 Weeks exposes the prejudices not just of its characters, but of the audience, as it forces us to ask ourselves the difficult questions at its heart.
Julia Jentsch, star of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, is Astrid, a successful stand-up comic who is introduced onstage, confidently delivering a funny set about her pregnancy. Fast forward a couple years and she and partner/manager Markus (TV star Bjarne Mädel) are enjoying life with their young daughter, with another baby on the way that is soon revealed to be a boy.
Much to their distress, the unborn child is diagnosed with Down syndrome. This sends the couple into a complete tailspin as they debate the pros and cons of raising the kid, visit a sweet music class to get a sense of their potential new lives and have difficult but necessary conversations with friends and family (Astrid refers to their babysitter, who refuses to take care of the child, as a “fascist”). At first, it seems 24 Weeks is heading down a similar road as the wonderful My Feral Heart, becoming a celebration of the lives of those with Down syndrome, and their loved ones.
Instead, after the initial setback, Astrid and Markus learn their unborn child has more serious health issues and a more difficult decision has to be made — should they keep the baby, risking how difficult his life will be (if it even survives), or go through the turmoil of a late-term abortion? Much of the movie’s second and third acts are taken up by this stressful back and forth, as the couple struggles to make the right choice for their family.
24 Weeks is not an easy watch, though it’s compelling throughout. There are moments that will challenge even the staunchest, most liberal pro-choice advocate, such as when Astrid inquires about the particulars of an abortion in the sixth month of pregnancy. Berrached doesn’t spare the gory details, making for a couple of genuinely uncomfortable scenes. She cuts to an insider view of the womb periodically (not Look Who’s Talking style, thankfully), to ensure the “life” of the unborn is never in doubt.
It’s a little on the nose, and a scene where Astrid visits a church looking for spiritual guidance about her decision is similarly ill-advised, but it’s clear neither Berrached and co-writer Carl Gerber holds any judgment toward women who make the incredibly difficult decision to abort. The doctors Astrid and Markus meet with (many of whom are real-life physicians, cast for authenticity) are realistic about their chances, but kind and helpful to a fault. They might be cynical, but the film never is.
It’s certainly a far cry from Savita Halappanavar being told “Ireland is a Catholic country” and left to die.
Berrached and Gerber bravely tackle two taboo subjects, the ethics of bringing a child with Down’s syndrome into the world and late term abortion, with sensitivity, intelligence and grace. There’s a sense that, much like Astrid and Markus, they aren’t quite sure what the “right” answer is, for want of a better word. Even when decisions are made, as they have to be, that indecision remains. The nagging sensation that there’s something morally wrong with feeling a certain way is always present.
Astrid initially blames herself for the Down syndrome diagnosis, admitting to Markus that she sneaked a few cigarettes while pregnant. Later, she freaks out and throws a cigarette away in disgust, stuck in an un-winnable situation she never expected to find herself in. After all, these are upper class, successful, straight, white people. These kinds of things shouldn’t happen to them (unlike the lesbian couple they meet at the hospital, struggling with their new baby, with its “two mothers”).
The societal pressure is all on Astrid, even if it’s technically their decision. She also has to deal with being a public figure, and the judgment that comes with it. Markus patronizes her about how fulfilling their new lives will be, completely disregarding how traumatizing the birth might be, or how difficult it will be for his partner to carry this literal burden around for another few months. He chastizes Astrid for potentially favoring her career, never trying to understand her position.
Markus isn’t painted as a straight up villain, but merely as a confused, well-meaning father trying to hold it all together in horrifying circumstances. This is thanks in large part to Mädel’s nuanced, emotional performance. Still, this is unequivocally Jentsch’s film, with Berrached often shooting her in close up, focusing in on her face as it crumples into despair, the question of “why me?” written all over it. Every intricacy of their impossible decision plays across that face. Astrid is a naturally nurturing presence, too, giving a vase of hospital flowers some water out of her own bottle.
24 Weeks is warmly captured, with plenty of baby blues utilized to emphasize there’s a little boy on the way. There’s nothing flashy about the direction, but it’s never cold or sterile, even in the hospital-set sequences. Early on, the pregnancy is depicted as a gift, particularly in a lovingly-shot shower sequence, which finds a group of pregnant women (including Astrid) carefully washing their bumps together. When Astrid’s pregnancy turns into a nightmare, she’s tracked down in that same shower by a fan eager to discuss her decision to talk about the Down syndrome diagnosis publicly (a choice that was taken out of her hands, thanks to a press leak).
24 Weeks is a woman’s film through and through, from the focus on Astrid’s inner struggle to the often stomach-churning realities of pregnancy and motherhood. Berrached doesn’t have any easy answers, and she ends her story somewhat abruptly, but it’s a fitting denouement for a film that finds it just as difficult to come down on either side as Astrid and Markus do. 24 Weeks is a tough watch at times, but its lingering questions will stick with you.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.