Cinema has always had an inherently problematic attitude towards abortion. Hollywood treat it with an archaic intolerance – to be pro-life makes you decent, any other view and you may as well be dancing with the Devil himself. And those gallant enough to offer an opposing argument inevitably struggle to stand by their beliefs in a bid not to neglect any of their audience.
24 Weeks, German director Anne Zohra Berrached’s shattering sophomore effort, is a rare and acutely rewarding illustration of how to objectively approach such a sensitive subject. When we first meet Astrid (Julia Jentsch), her glow is so radiant it could keep you warm in sub-zero temperatures. She’s a successful comedian in a loving long-term relationship with her manager/boyfriend Markus (Bjarne Mädel), and together they’re preparing for the arrival of their second child.Astrid and Markus’ home life is happy and harmonious when we are introduced, DP Friede Clausz gliding his camera around them gracefully, as if floating on a cloud. That domestic bliss dissipates suddenly, however, when they are told that their unborn son will have Down’s syndrome. Understandably, the pair is devastated by the news, but with the support of their family and friends, they quickly agree to meet the challenge that awaits them with optimism; lively sparks of levity strengthening their fortitude as it emanates from the screen.
After doctors also inform them that their baby will also have a serious heart defect though, the couple begins to wonder whether their newborn could ever have a life worth living, causing Astrid to consider the possibility of a late-term termination.
As it was in her first feature Two Mothers, the crux of Berrached’s film is the exploration of how women choose to live their lives. In this case, it’s the study of someone forced to confront a major moral quandary for which there is no simple solution. And crucially, the writer/director never volunteers one. 24 Weeks has no easy answers to the questions it poses because, as it makes clear, there aren’t any – a formative lesson for us all. Deciding to have an abortion is one of the most difficult decisions a woman may ever have to make, and what’s vital here is that she alone has the final say; pro-choice, not pro-life!Berrached directs throughout with a delicate candour akin to that of Bergman, mounting a searing portrait of a relationship placed under the greatest strain. Her script, co-written with Carl Gerber, is composed with an affecting refinement that shuns stagy sentimentality entirely, opting instead for an understated sincerity that’s soul-crushingly sad. Arguments that erupt between Astrid and Markus are startlingly spontaneous, furious outbursts of frustration that leave Clausz’s lens convulsing wildly as their anxiety intensifies.
Much of the film’s human complexity hangs on Julia Jentsch, who naturally underscores the script’s heart-breaking honesty. Astrid’s pain is both psychical and psychological, but Jentsch is careful not to emotionally embellish her personal agony; it’s a performance that thrives on reticence.
Certain elements jar slightly. Instants in which Berrached chips away at the fourth wall by having Astrid stare straight at us through the camera momentarily minimising our emotive connection to the character. And yet, never do we forget what her story represents. It isn’t for us to judge whether or not she has an abortion, what’s crucial is that it’s her choice, and hers alone. “Stand by your convictions” Astrid says to her audience at the end of each stand-up show, how refreshing it is to find a film that truly has the courage to do so.