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Gillian Robespierre’s Portraits of Womanhood

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This post contains *SPOILERS* for Obvious Child and Landline.

Movies about abortion, or ones that even discuss it are often dark, gritty, and realistic depictions of women finding themselves in terrible circumstances. Adding comedy into the mix is something that may have been attempted before, but I’d argue never as tastefully done as it is in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. Even when the film’s first trailer came out people were talking about it, reflecting on the taboo nature of its subject and whether it would be crass and inappropriate or strike a rare balance between dramatic and comedic. When I first saw the film in theatres I was completely shocked at how many laughs everyone in the audience shared, and also how long it took before the main conceit, that the female lead would undergoing an abortion, came to the fore of the film. I think therein lies the reason that so many audiences enjoyed the film, because it wasn’t just about an abortion. It was a story about a young comedienne trying to figure her life out. By taking the character of Donna and allowing audiences to really get to know her and connect with her struggles the director and screenwriter Gillian Robespierre allows us to empathize with her from the beginning of her story and throughout this intense portion of her life.

Obvious Child needed to be made and more films like it should be made. People needed to see women in these circumstances who get abortions. Women who become pregnant after having consensual sex and who aren’t pressured, but still choose to seek an abortion. People, most especially women, needed to see someone who’s not turned into a lesson or whose decision isn’t seen as vengeful and vindictive, because these are the women that so many politicians vilify and point to when defending their own viewpoints on banning abortions. And we as a society need to see that even without these dimensions or constraints in someone’s life the decision to have an abortion is still filled with sadness, anxiety, and hardship. By increasing the visibility of women like Donna, Robespierre is making audiences aware that we shouldn’t judge any women in this situation, and also that for any Donnas out there that they aren’t alone. All the content in the film was a bold statement, and that was just her debut film.

Gillian Robespierre

Gillian Robespierre

Robespierre only has two major motion pictures to her name, both of which she has directed and written, the second, and most recent one being Landline. While the two films have very different stories and even time periods, what they both share is the actress Jenny Slate and the producer and co-screenwriter Elisabeth Holm, along with stories that feature several strong female leads. The central idea of Robespierre’s work seems to be women deciding what kind of life they want to lead. In Obvious Child we’re just looking at one woman in her mid-30s, and in Landline we’re studying three different age groups: teenager daughter, daughter in her mid-30s, and their mother. While the central problems in Robespierre’s scripts are quite serious matters, abortion and infidelity, she makes them engaging purely because none of her characters are put into genre stereotypes.

When filmmakers, or even screenwriters, are capturing stories where a very gender-specific issue is taking place you can often find characters of the opposite gender forming the backdrop of the story and given little agency or complexity in the plot. Robespierre dodges that trap though by letting her male characters experience similar growth and understanding, the main example of this being Max in Obvious Child, someone who isn’t a deadbeat boyfriend or lover, but more importantly doesn’t desert Donna after she undergoes the procedure. Looking through Donna’s perspective we perceive him to be a certain way, straight-laced and slightly conservative, but he surprises us by showing acceptance and reminding us that not every romantic partner is confrontational or antagonistic in these situations. In Landline we also see two different versions of infidelity in one family, the two sisters in the film are quick to condemn their dad, Alan, all the while one of them is also having an affair while she’s engaged. Both Alan and his daughter Dana are unable to fully admit to their infidelity, but they are both aware of the fact that they feel they’ve made compromises in life that they aren’t entirely happy with. In their portrayals we see that no matter what age you are you’re still always figuring things out and wondering “what if”, but also that being in a healthy relationship is difficult for everyone. And in the character of Alan we again see the complexity of cheating. He’s not simply a man with a wandering eye, but a man in a strained marriage who doesn’t know if he can really be happy in his current situation.

The reason we have such a point of connection with all of these stories is that the mixture of comedy and drama never tips over to the absurd or melodramatic. The comedy comes from the embarrassment of daily life coupled with some situational humor, and the drama comes from tough life decisions and their repercussions. It’s because of this that Robespierre’s work finds such a place in the hearts of audiences, because it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a cooked-up scenario that only happens in movies.  Everything in her films feels real and all her characters’ problems feel pressing and scary, but she writes them all with empathy. There’s a reason she parallels Dana’s story with her father Alan’s: it’s so audiences could see cases of infidelity where both genders experience vulnerability in their relationships. We are used to seeing the deceived wife, but we don’t often see the deceived husband, and it’s important to see both depictions and to realize both cases can happen and are painful in their various ways. Robespierre’s knack for never forgetting the male counterpart in the relationships she writes is what defines her as a feminist filmmaker to me.  She doesn’t give one perspective precedence over another and honors the emotions of every character. Women are at the center of both of these films, but that doesn’t stop Robespierre from giving equal weight to the agency of all characters that are part of the lead’s life.

Still image from Obvious Child

Still image from Obvious Child

What Robespierre excels at is capturing a slice of life, and what’s refreshing about her story structure is that she’s not trying to deliver completely changed characters at the end, but instead just lets them grow up and mature. Landline stays true to this framework, as the film not only delivers a focus on the breakdown of a marriage, but also the central problem results in the discovery of the problems that are rife in each family member’s lives. Dana and Ali’s main goal was to save their parent’s marriage, or at least shame their dad for ruining it, but at the end they’ve both realized that a relationship failing is not a one-sided story. This opens them up to uncovering their own personal inabilities to give and receive love and finally leads them to have a better understanding of themselves, their parents, and how tenuous love and commitment can be. Finally, the last scene in Obvious Child immediately warmed my heart, especially as I’m a lover of open-ended conclusions. There is something romantic in the final scene even though there is no kiss or flash forward, or even a hint of what is to come for the couple. At the end, the abortion has already happened and they are still together. No ill will is between them, no fighting or anger, just simple companionship and some momentary stability—and love, of course, the thing that allows every one of Robespierre’s characters to get through their struggles.

Landline poster

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About Author

Noni Ford

I’m a Bloomington, Indiana native and a junior currently at IU’s new Media School with a concentration in Cinema and Media Arts and a specialization in in Art, Aesthetics, and Experimental film. I’m a DJ on WIUX’s Pure Student Radio, as well as a member of American Student Radio and Student Cinema Guild. Along with that I’ve been a screening intern for the media company Flix Premiere that holds offices in Burbank, California and London, England and for a literary management intern with a theatre company the Bloomington Playwrights Project. Upon graduation I plan to immediately go out into the field and become a director and screenwriter.

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