Is Childbirth too Big for the Big Screen?

Many of us will have witnessed a birth in mainstream cinema—but what are we really shown? Often a mother who has undergone hours of hair and make up, a moment of intense pushing, and then the arrival of a (very clean) baby. [author]Muriel Zagha[/author] explores the potentially problematic nature of showing birth on film, via Claude Lévi-Strauss and a host of movies from the comedy to horror genres.



A visceral, overwhelming initiation into the state of nature, birth is by the same token a problematic object for representation. To borrow French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s distinction between the natural and the cultural in his structuralist study of Ameridian mythology The Raw and the Cooked (1964), film, an art form, is cooked, while birth is raw.

Where are there birth scenes in cinema? By and large they are to be found in comedies, whose titles—from Nine Months (1995) to What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012) by way of Knocked Up (2007)—obligingly flag up birth as their main theme. Comedy birth tends to follow a familiar pattern: the woman’s waters usually break in comic circumstances (gushing, say, all over somebody else’s shoes); the woman screams and rants during the birth, and often throw insults and objects at her partner; and of course the baby comes out relatively clean. One of the characters in What to Expect actually sneezes her baby out.



It is true that Judd Apatow is unusual in showing the baby crowning in Knocked Up, a moment of realism that comes as a surprise in a film that is otherwise a gleeful wish-fulfilment fantasy. But overall, mainstream comedy radically transforms the rawness of birth, serving it as a fully cooked, tamed, unthreatening item within the narrative.



Less easily digestible is the treatment of birth in horror films, where it crosses over to the dark side and slides into metaphor and nightmare. During my own pregnancy I was surprised to find my mind turning often to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), in which a young woman slowly realizes that she has been impregnated by the devil, and also to the infamous “chestburster” scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), in which the murderous creature he has unwittingly ingested forces its way bloodily out of John Hurt’s torso.



And yet, that tales of possession and body horror should prove natural contexts for birth or birth-like events is understandable. Though discernible from the outside, the process of pregnancy remains internal, secret, hidden away; scans present us with a sort of ghostly Rorschash inkblot test. Like death, birth is an ineluctable aspect of the human condition that remains essentially mysterious until directly experienced. Like death it is shrouded in many shades of anxiety, from loss of control to actual extinction, and this is perhaps why, in the context of cinema, laughter and (fictional) terror are such useful and well-worn coping mechanisms. Turning a frightening event into comedy helps to subdue its power, while horror films deliver a sort of cathartic ordeal into which we strap ourselves willingly, and from which we emerge as survivors, having got through the whole thing—and only covered our eyes once or twice.

But there is more to this: the raw and the cooked may be applied as sub-categories within cinema. Film critic Serge Daney suggested in Les Cahiers du Cinéma (May 1981) that documentary films might be considered “raw” while cinematic fiction is “cooked”. This is particularly true when applied to birth, though not without nuances and complications. Dziga Vetov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is expressive of Soviet cinema’s ideological mission: to reject bourgeois staged cinema and find instead a universal visual language intelligible to all workers the world over. The film is an attempt at capturing life as it unfolds in a city over twenty-four hours, and, in a daring montage, juxtaposes actual footage of newlyweds getting into their carriage, a funereal procession with open casket, and the birth of a child.



Birth has remained a favoured subject for documentary filmmakers. Latvian auteur Herz Frank, whose unflinching documentaries were for the main part concerned with death and illness, devoted the film The Song of Solomon (1989) to filming a birth: in it, there is a subtle change from monochrome to colour when the child is born.



Birth scenes are also a trope of countercultural American cinema, as in the muti-stranded Milestones (1975) by Robert Kramer and John Douglas, which combines scripted and unscripted scenes to portray attempts at alternative lifestyles away from “the system”, and features an unscripted (and unmedicalized) live birth, where the mother is attended and supported by members of her commune.



At one end of the spectrum, then, birth in the raw, such as in Stan Brakhage’s ground-breaking twelve-minute 1959 Window Water Baby Moving, in which the filmmaker recorded the birth of his first child, and at the other, a fictional representation of “cooked” birth set in the same era, the remarkable episode of Mad Men entitled The Fog, in which Betty Draper delivers her child while entirely sedated (and hallucinating about her dead father) and jerks awake to find a tidily wrapped baby in her arms. The latter is an accurate (and highly critical) depiction of what was the experience of many women at the time. The former, which, when it was sent to Kodak to be processed was treated as obscene material and threatened with destruction, has since been credited with influencing a change in mindset and policy, and giving fathers access to hospitals’ delivery rooms.



Meanwhile, the censorship of female body parts depicted in art is alive and well: in 2011, a French teacher saw his Facebook account shut down because he had posted an image of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting The Origin of the World (a realistic close-up of a woman’s vulva) with a link to an article about the painting, leading to years of legal wrangling. Birth too, because it is experienced on screen as such a searing, stirring irruption of reality, remains a richly problematic object for film. A documentary approach—the filming of “visible fact”—is vital, and there may even be a parallel to be drawn between the frontal depiction of birth on screen and early examples of cinema such as the crowds of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) or Arrival of Train (1896), on-screen irruptions which astonished their audiences with the illusion of real life. Birth is a moment of apparition. But do we also need powerful fiction, and ways of looking at birth sideways?

Birth has featured in some remarkable “cooked” works of fiction. In Carl Dreyer’s unforgettable Ordet—a stark film about faith—a mother dies during a difficult birth, but is miraculously resurrected in the final scene. Released the same year, in 1955, Ingmar Bergman’s Brink of Life focuses on the mysteries of life and birth on a maternity ward. Two of of its female characters experience a miscarriage and a stillbirth respectively, and the third is (scandalously for the time) an unmarried mother. The birth scene, where little is actually shown, traumatized viewers, causing some people to faint in the cinema. More recently, French film-maker Catherine Breillat’s transgressive Romance (1999), which tells the story of a woman’s sexual experiences and contains unsimulated sex, ends with a close-up birth whose soundtrack likens it, surreally, to a bomb blast. “Cinema,” Breillat has said, “is still in its prehistory. Our films are similar to the cave paintings of Lascaux.” Time will tell what as yet unthought-of birth stories may come.