In the 1970s laws to legalize abortion were hard won. Such was the case in France, a predominately Catholic country at the time. When Simone Veil was appointed Minister of Health under President Valry Giscard d’Estaing, she was tasked with the impossibility of pushing through a bill legalizing abortion for women throughout the country.
The Law directed by Christian Faure and starring Emmanuelle Devos as the suave, highly rational and coolly composed Simone Veil, traces the pressure-cooker atmosphere during the three-day parliamentary debate over passage of the abortion bill in France. It is based on the events that occurred at the time, but is vital in reminding us of what can easily be lost unless rationality and logic remains at the foundation of the abortion debate and a woman’s right to choose what she most probably would do anyway, regardless of abortion’s legality or illegality.
Faure presents Veil, his heroine (exquisitely played by Devos), as a woman of velvet steel. His portrayal is from Veil’s own well documented life as a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where she lost her father, mother, and brother during WWII after they were deported to the camps. Educated as a lawyer and magistrate after the war, Veil worked in the Ministry of Justice and was responsible for judicial affairs. She improved women’s prison conditions and the treatment of incarcerated women. She continually worked for general women’s rights with each position she was selected to, until she eventually was appointed Minister of Health in Jacques Chirac’s government. Giscard d’Estaing understood that if anyone could move to get such an abortion bill passed by the French government, it was Simone Veil because of her passion to stand for undaunted women who were willing to risk their lives to give themselves an abortion using any means at their disposal. Oftentimes, such women died or bled to death and suffered miserably in the process. Veil believed something had to be done for them.
Faure chronicles the process Veil uses to gain consensus among members of her own party who were divided about voting for the law. It is a moment to moment battle with party members switching their opinions and support based upon outside pressure and the fear that they would lose their constituencies if they approved the abortion bill. For publicity reasons even Jacques Chirac and Veil’s fellow ministers did not confront their own cowardice. Instead, they abandoned Veil who was forced to defend the controversial law alone. They potentially let her “swing in the wind,” while they ran for cover. In the film, Faure reveals the undaunted Veil, who was like the women she was fighting for to protect their lives from unsafe abortions. Veil steadfastly presents her arguments to the parliament a number of times with dispassionate reason. She is the only woman in her party to argue that the law is vital to saving women’s lives.
The Law succeeds on a number of levels. It is a fascinating crash course in political machinations, consensus building, political flexibility, split second decision making, and thinking on one’s feet. Faure constructs the back and forth public and private argumentation as a taut thriller. The film is also a dramatic abortion debate which resonates with those of us in the present as the abortion debate still rages in some states in the U.S. and in those countries around the world which have banned abortion and which force women to travel to European countries where it is legal or risk their lives attempting to abort on their own. In the film we understand how the rational arguments that support the case for abortion to protect the lives of women who will engage in their own abortions regardless of its legality, trumps the emotionalism of those who bring in the religious argument or those who bring in pictures of the fetus to show it is being “murdered.”
Faure is a skillful filmmaker. Through close ups and quick shifts, his editing enhances how Veil cleverly manipulates the inner and outer tensions that involve the machinery of political power constructs. With continually shifting scenes between the players, Faure highlights the deceptions, the feints and parries, and the nerves of steel required to negotiate behind the scenes to insure there is no misunderstanding about what is at stake: the real issues of life and death beyond the issues of feminist power.
Veil did not take the feminist stance in her arguments about a woman having control of her own body. Instead, she strictly held to the humanitarian view that women needed to be protected from dying, because regardless, they would inadvertently commit suicide in the process of inducing an abortion. Veil persuades the feminist/liberal segment of the party to tone down the rhetoric and move toward a moderate position and compromise with other elements of the party who are more conservative. Also, she manages to convince representatives of the Catholic Church to be silent and not join in with virulent and didactic emotionalism. Devos is superb in this portrait of Veil as the controlled, commanding, yet ultra feminine woman.
The taut drama of the film reveals the triumphant reality of how Veil, her aides, and the shrinking number of party members held their ground and did not cave in to the opposing side who demeaned them and resorted to smug, dirty tricks. Indeed, the manipulative opposition slimes and emotionally vilifies those who support the law by referring to them as Nazi murderers. It is a particularly damaging and hurtful tactic against Veil who personally suffered through the camps and lost her parents and brother to the ovens. Faure reveals Veil’s response in a private moment, but also characterizes the strong public persona of Veil through this incredibly trying time and the last day of the debate just before the final vote for or against the abortion law.
The Law is a tribute to Simone Veil’s power as an individual and an extraordinary humanitarian. At a time when individual choice is often curtailed by the powers of the group, Veil marshaled her allies and with reason and a moderate and compromised stand, pressed for the advantage, all the while holding the women who would potentially die if the law were not passed in her heart and mind. Not all was achieved that she and others wished. However, through compromise a just result was reached.
The film is a lesson in compromise and building bridges to negotiate an agreement that all parties find acceptable because no one party “gets it all.” It is also a lesson in putting aside egos for the common good, something which current politicians need to mentor. Curtailing one’s ego is an honorable stance that France’s political forebears appear to have embodied with strength. For us in the U.S. it is a reminder of what can be accomplished when, as Veil demonstrates roundly to all her colleagues, that grand standing and personal feeling have no viable part in deciding life or death issues to create a more just society.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1906598231] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00EB6FZ6I]