In Sophie Letourneur’s Énorme (2019), we are presented with a man and a woman who are having a baby; potentially the most cultural familiar relationship in its actualisation of successful heteronormativity. However, in what she describes as a ‘burlesque comedy about pregnancy’, Letourneur strips away the cultural gendered assumptions which clad our understanding of pregnancy, family and gender. Letourneur is interested in troubling accepted truths about natural processes that she suggests are not so natural after all; ‘I raise many questions, but I don’t give any answers because [in pregnancy] there is something mystical and archaic, and at the same time, something uncontrollable.’ Énorme is a mutation in which the familiar is reflected with stark and laughable absurdity.
Énorme follows concert pianist Claire Girard (Marina Foïs) and her obsessively controlling husband Frédéric (Jonathan Cohen). Frédéric directs every aspect of Claire’s life; both professionally as her manager, organising her work schedule where she will and won’t play as well as domestically, deciding she does not drink, down to holding and issuing her contraceptive pill when an alarm sounds on his phone. After posing as a doctor (‘I have a qualification in first aid’), Frédéric delivers a baby on a plane. Gazing into the child’s eyes he experiences infamous pang of the biological clock and endeavours to covertly induce pregnancy in his long-suffering wife; completing his matrimonial conquest of her body and autonomy.
Letourneur conducts a fresh examination of pregnancy, urging that the audience re-examine the surreal state. Having orchestrated his sinister version of an immaculate conception, swapping Claire’s birth control for sweetener, Fréd begins to stand in for Claire as mother experiencing something of a phantom pregnancy. He swells in size as a result of sudden rapid cravings and waddles, supporting his newly protruding belly or massaging his lower back; his physicality submitting to our archetypal understanding of the pregnant woman. Through Fréd’s ‘pregnancy’, Letourneur is able to surface familiar idiosyncrasies of pregnancy, whilst alienating them into absurdity. Where sometimes this results in a reliance on cliché, Fréd’s abandonment of sharp cottons and suits in favour of dungarees, largely Fréd’s enactment of pregnancy is revealing. The antenatal class he attends is called ‘Love, Milk and Cuddles’. Claire doesn’t attend a single one of these classes, but the other couples don’t find her absence at all strange accepting Fréd’s position as mother by proxy. Bar medical staff, everyone surrounding the couple is responsive and unquestioning of Fréd’s pregnancy; confirming Letourneur’s assessment of pregnancy as something mystical and archaic. The body is at the forefront of the piece, which Letourneur describes as ‘exploring ‘not only gender inversion, but something more subtle that lies in between’.
Part of Letourneur’s success is a result of Énorme’s complexity; its resistance to entirely villainise Fréd and instead to demonstrate continued tenderness between the couple. Although pregnancy seems to come naturally to Fréd, it does come with an alienating removal of bodily autonomy which subsequently triggers the relinquishment of his control over Claire. Vignettes are repeated, mutating to remove Fréd’s dominance and ensure Énorme’s eventual arrival at equality for the couple. The film’s opening sequence follows Fréd and Claire as they check into multiple hotels in cities in which Claire is performing. Fréd answers in turn of Claire, speaking for her constantly, he approaches the desk announcing ‘I’m Claire Girard’. This literalisation of husband and wife as ‘one flesh’ is disturbing; Claire is not acknowledged as her own individual agent capable of autonomy. Even more disturbing is Claire’s compliance; these moments jar so fully as they seem not to trouble Claire at all. She stands meekly behind her husband, neither concerned nor enamoured, her nonchalance only confirming further the totality of Fréd’s control. However, after Claire becomes pregnant, these moments which initially serve to excel Fréd’s dominance, are repeated with him instead as the object of derision. Believing he is about to go into labour, Fréd hysterically screams ‘I’m Claire Girard!’ at hospital staff. Where once the words were a sinister confirmation of his patriarchal ownership of his marriage, now they work only to reduce him to a spectacle in hysterics. Indeed, it is in his clash with hospital staff where Fréd’s control begins to lose traction. In the hospital, he is unable to pose as the mother. When, to Claire’s surprise, he describes his plan for a water birth, he is met with a cold ‘It is not your birth plan, since you are not the one giving birth’. Despite his phantom pregnancy’s almost universal acceptance, Fréd is unable to take full ownership of motherhood, he is unable to displace Claire entirely.
Despite Claire managing to recover some agency in her pregnancy, the experience is in equal parts alienating and often horrific. Pregnancy lends itself easily to horror, exhibiting fears of bodily mutilation, possession, transmission, cloning etc. As Rosemary Betterton has acknowledged, horror cinema has an ‘unquestionable obsession with pregnancy, the physical constitution and destruction of the human body.’ Fréd’s comical enaction of Claire’s pregnancy has a sinister consequence in reducing Claire’s role in the pregnancy merely to a necessary physical performance, devoid of any of the human meaning of maternity. In striking resemblance to The Handmaid’s Tale, Claire is an isolated host to her husband’s baby. Atwood’s novel (and subsequent Channel 4 series) has become the contemporary articulation of women’s threatened agency. In both The Handmaid’s Tale and Énorme, women are appreciated only in relation physical capabilities or, indeed, necessities. Claire’s musical talent allowed her some recognition separate from and despite her oppressive marriage. In pregnancy, Claire’s exists solely as pregnant woman, her identity supplanted by that of her unborn child. Friends of Fréd’s bypass Claire, directing their hellos to her stomach to greet ‘Biboo’ (the name Fréd has given to their unborn daughter). There is no ‘mother’ here, the film is entirely devoid of maternity. Letourneur’s documentary style camera ensures this; lingering on vacancy and isolation in the place of warmth. Énorme resists reconciliation, in Claire’s consistent resistance to and horror at her pregnancy, we are presented with a woman with a motherhood placed painfully on top of her.
Infrequently in Énorme is the drama focalised through Claire, however, in these few moments Letourneur allows for the horrific potential for pregnancy to be fully realised. Experiencing fatigue, nausea and bloating Claire goes to the doctor, fearing she has cancer. Before the scan, Claire already discusses her pregnancy in horrific terms, visualising it as an infestation. When the doctor passes the ultrasound wand over Claire’s belly she smiles, ‘It’s a baby,’ to which Claire responds ‘a baby cancer?’ The news that she is pregnant is not a relief, to Claire this diagnosis is the same as a cancerous one. Fréd’s face fills the centre of the screen, he is grinning and nodding enamoured at the black and white alien floating in the monitor. Behind him Claire collapses; unmoving she lies with her legs still in stirrups and her hands to her head. The abuse of Fréd’s stealth impregnation is finally and viscerally acknowledged, removed from its comedic origins. We hear the baby’s incessant beating heart, a warped and churning inhuman oppression.
Fréd and Claire’s relationship breaks down when Claire eventually learns how her husband orchestrated her pregnancy. At Fréd’s imploring, Claire agrees that they attend a couple’s councillor. During the session, Claire is given her only opportunity in the film to voice her grievances with Fréd and pregnancy’s abuse; ‘I’m sick of being prodded and grabbed.’ However, throughout her confession, the councillor’s hands are places firmly on Claire’s pregnant belly, she directs her attention at the bump rather than Claire. Claire becomes distressed, shouting ‘Get your hands off me! Don’t touch me!’ ‘I’m not touching you.’ Comes the eerie calm response, the councillor’s hands still clasping Claire’s bump at either side, her gaze trained solely on Claire’s protruding stomach. Pregnancy is a body made public; here we apprehend the ‘something uncontrollable’ Letourneur describes as motivating her film.
Sophie Letourneur manages to navigate dealing seriously and directly with the abuse which drives her film, whilst balancing the absurd nuances of pregnancy and relationships. Foïs and Cohen’s relationship is Énorme’s triumph; they play each other’s foils wonderfully and naturally allow for the humour (and it is very funny) to come through. Letourneur professes that her film does not seek to offer any answers to the myriad of questions it raises about domestically abusive and controlling partners, the contested and reviled status of the pregnant woman or indeed gender itself. Instead, she weaves importance into a film rich with nuance which interrogates our assumptions about pregnancy, the complexity of bystander-ship in one’s own unhealthy partnerships and the precarious status of autonomy. Somehow, in Énorme, Letourneur has produced a tender and genuine comedy.
By Joanna Mason
by Joanna Mason
Joanna Mason (preferably Joey) is 22 and is studying in Glasgow, Scotland. Some of her favourite films are Lost Highway, Withnail and I, Frances Ha and Videodrome.