CW: Discussions of abortion.
The annual French Film Festival is back at Palace Cinemas with a wide selection of cinematic delights, from romance to sci-fi, to drama. This year, I caught a few films I had been eagerly anticipating and discovered a running thematic thread of womanhood and time. Anaïs in Love, Happening and Full Time all centre themselves around female protagonists and their bodies as sites of heightened temporality.
These films push towards a revolution in time as an act of resistance, guided and ushered in specifically by women. Rather than a strictly linear deterministic passing of time as envisioned in Christianity, these films posit a more free-flowing and embodied conception of time.
Anaïs in Love follows its titular protagonist as she fumbles through life, unlucky in love and trying to find her footing. She has an affair with an older married man, but upon discovering his wife Émilie’s writing, Anaïs falls for her. She then tracks Émilie down to a French villa during a book tour, where she begins to romance her. All the while, she juggles her finances, studies, various debts, and a crumbling apartment.
The heart of the film is its deep romance, with the framing constantly emphasising the proximity between Anaïs and Émilie in the frame. This is a film about yearning, lingering looks and heavy breathing in another person’s presence. The film constantly plays with time, with Anaïs under increasing constraints and deadlines. However, her romance with Émilie is purposely drawn out and crawls along at a snail’s pace to emphasise their longing for one another.
The second film I saw was Happening, which sees Anne, a teenager in her final year of high school, fall pregnant. The film is set in the 1960s when performing abortions in France was illegal. Wanting to focus on her career rather than become a mother at her age, the film traces Anne’s various attempts to access an abortion.
Happening is a highly distressing film. While the 1960s costuming and vintage aesthetic fills the audience with nostalgic reverie, the subject matter is uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. As the weeks tick by and her pregnancy moves along, her attempts to have an abortion become more desperate. The camerawork is claustrophobic, utilising a macro lens to get a shallow depth of field. Anne’s body is constantly shot in extreme close up, filling the frame, with everyone else slightly out of focus. The proximity to Anne allows us to ‘become Anne’ and inhabit her body, creating a greater sense of empathy and urgency for her struggles.
The final film, Full Time, is a pressure cooker drama about a mother attempting to raise her two children on her own. All the while she must race between her job as a maid in the morning and a series of job interviews on the other side of Paris, just as transit strikes make commuting impossible.
Full Time is an edge of your seat suspense flick, with the soundtrack a constantly thumping electronic score that captures the stress of running late and juggling multiple responsibilities. The film is relentless in its energy, with quick cuts and shaky camera work that feels like a Jason Bourne thriller. For the protagonist Julie, time is a constant threat she repeatedly battles with.
All these films grapple with time and temporality in various ways. Anaïs struggles with her laundry list of overdue debts, while her romance with Émilie is described as belonging to “another time”, as if existing in an alternate temporality. Meanwhile, Happening sees Anne bound by the ticking clock of her pregnancy and her upcoming finals. And in Full Time, Julie battles with the buses and trains running late, her packed schedule of jobs and interviews, and the fear she is missing out on adequately providing for her children.
In the article ‘Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum,’ Giorgio Agamben suggests that various cultures throughout history have used images to help explain perceptions of time. We primarily conceive of a straight line in Western cultures, a very deterministic ordering of past, present and future. The women in these films are bound to a set track, hurtling towards futures they have no control over. They exist in a regimented temporality.
However, Agamben opens his essay by suggesting that “every culture is first and foremost a particular experience of time, and no new culture is possible without an alteration in this experience. The original task of a genuine revolution, therefore, is never merely to ‘change the world’, but also – and above all – to ‘change time’.”
The free-flowing nature of time is manifest by the various depictions of water throughout the films. In Anaïs in Love, emotional moments are punctuated by the protagonist swimming at the beach as a conduit to a cathartic release. First, when told her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and then later following the consummation of her relationship with Émilie.
Full Time provides levity and respite to Julie when she takes a bath. These are moments where she can finally be alone with the water – a panacea to her anxiety-riddled life. Her eyes close and the film sporadically cuts to images of water splashing on a beach. We are unsure if they are flashbacks or flash-forwards; they are brief blurry images devoid of context. These shots exist outside of her current temporality and are evocative of an effervescent pool of time.
While these films are unique in their stories, they are linked by a shared urge to break free from traditional dogmatic notions of time, recognising the daily struggles of women moving about the world. These films beckon us to imagine an alternative reality, one defined by feminine subjectivity and empathy for others, even if they centre on white cisgender characters and do not necessarily represent the experiences of all women.
The French Film Festival runs from 1 March to 6 April at Palace Cinemas.