Sophie Letourneur’s Énorme: A twisted satire that highlights the hardships of women

Ishita Sengupta
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The film was screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam. (Source: IFFR Video Platform)

In Sophie Letourneur’s Énorme, the most insightful observation comes out of an informal conversation. The extremely gifted and painfully shy pianist Claire Girard (Marina Foïs) was just done performing. Standing in a corner, she smiled diffidently at her admirers. Her husband Frédéric (Jonathan Cohen), who also doubled up as her agent and coach was receiving compliments reserved for her. A woman, wife of an ambassador, asks Girard the secret to her talent to which she responds with a mute grin. At this point, the man with no apparent talent other than keeping his wife’s life in order remarks, “Behind every great woman is a man”. And then, as if to prove his sweeping statement asks his audience, “As ambassador’s wives, you are called ambassadress. Behind every great ambassador, is there an ambassadress?” Cutting the affirmative response short, he asks again, “Does it work the other way?” He is informed, “When a woman does the job, she is called an ambassador, but her husband is not known as an ambassadress. He is nothing.” The profundity of the exchange not just breaks down our general inability to deal with a man who does not occupy the centre stage, and his subsequent effacement but also hints at our expectation and willing acceptance of a woman as a second fiddle. This sentiment largely foreshadows Letourneur’s film.

Girard, so enviously in control of her craft, exhibits none of that quality when it comes to her life. It is her husband who takes care of her daily functioning. People talk to him when they want to communicate with her. He plans her concerts, itineraries, decides on her outfits and is visibly happier when she is asked to be the first woman to perform the Magical Night. This dominance might come across as an instance of toxic masculinity but Girard’s complete detachment from everything else save her instrument makes her reliance a case of an artist’s wilful need for solitude. She is the prototype of the self-absorbed artist and he mirrors those who work unendingly at the fringes to protect that. Their marriage then is a veiled arrangement and Letourneur underlines its functionality at several instances. When Girard is exhausted, her partner asks with genuine concern if he should relax or pleasure her, when she forgets his birthday, he reassures her he will buy something with her card. This unhindered alliance gets upended when he helps a fellow passenger to give birth on a flight and recognises and begins nurturing paternal instincts. He desires to have a child. Being too consumed with her profession, it had been hitherto mutually decided that they would not have a baby. It is here that Frédéric exploits her trust and replaces birth control pills with sugar pellets.

In Letourneur’s twisted little film, the rather heinous breach of trust is almost countered by placing it next to Girard’s blinding selfishness. Her refusal to consider anybody else but herself comes across as plain indifference towards him. The incident then precludes from becoming a tragedy as it fails to evoke our sympathy. The mishap surfaces instead as a scenario where the one who had been exploited for long seeks to now exploit. The result is grudgingly hilarious. Unaware that she is pregnant, Girard visits a doctor and complains of feeling nauseous. She fears she has cancer — “nausea is an early sign of cancer” — and when told she is having a baby during an ultrasonography, her utter disbelief shows when she exclaims, “a baby cancer!” Her unfeelingness towards the child continues as she restricts herself to her room and it is Frédéric who puts on weight (in keeping with giving company to his wife), goes to sessions for expectant mothers-to-be to learn the do(s) and don't(s) during childbirth. The prospect of having a child gives him the opportunity to finally be the one who creates something, to be the artist in the relationship.

Written by Letourneur and Mathias Gavary, Énorme plays with a radical swap of gender roles. It is the husband who behaves like a quintessential wife and vice-versa. And while this helps in building an apparent satire, it operates as an effective ruse to drive home a bigger point: the immense physical and mental labour women undergo during childbirth and how easily they  tend to lose their identity during that process. The uncaring attitude of Girard works as an excellent attribute to voice the hardships and the psychological turmoil women experience during pregnancy sans any maternal embellishments. She does not hide her discomfort or her plight. She does not remain a mute spectator content with witnessing her identity slowly disappearing. She does not want to be a generic birth-giver. Her defiance is most acutely evident even after knowing of her husband’s doing, the grudge that she nurses the most is his preoccupation with the unborn child. “You don’t see me anymore,” she complains.

Letourneur’s Énorme unfolds like a documentary but in a rare surrealist touch gives away its intent when Girard’s stomach bloats in excessive proportions. The disproportionate inflation robs all the romanticism associated with a pregnant bump, restricting her mobility and making things visibly harder for her. The enormity of her bump then becomes a literal allegory making it impossible for us to look past the length and breadth of physical exertion of women in general and hers in particular

(The film was screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam)