Periods, Pregnancy and the Soul of Time: Saint Frances and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

When the Academy rejected an advertising spot for Frida Mom’s postpartum products during this year’s Oscars ceremony, it felt like a double blow. Just a year on from the Best Short win by Period. End Of Sentence, not only was the Academy accused of snubbing female directors, but now it appeared to censor the depiction of female stories in wider culture too. Frida’s chief executive officer, Chelsea Hirschhorn, told the New York Times the Academy had suggested dropping the realistic advert of a mother struggling to use a peri bottle to clean herself after urinating, for a “kinder, more gentle portrayal of postpartum.” 

But filmmakers like Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan are not dissuaded by squeamish attitudes towards the female body. Their feature film debut, Saint Frances, depicts the bloody, messy reality of female life, from menstruation and period sex to abortion. Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a single, thirty-something babysitter living in a rented apartment. “I’m not an impressive person,” she confesses. Her life has no direction and time is running out, something that’s underlined by the film’s elliptical storytelling; we only see Bridget when she’s bleeding.

Bridget Saint Frances Kelly O'Sullivan
Kelly O’Sullivan in Saint Frances

“The time span of a woman’s life is about thirty years,” writes author Sheila Heti in her semi-fictitious novel, Motherhood, “Apparently, during these thirty years – fourteen to forty-four – everything must be done. She must find a man, make babies, start and accelerate her career… Thirty years is not enough time to live a whole life!” Like Saint Frances, Heti’s novel progresses to the rhythms of the female body – with chapters titled ‘bleeding’, ‘ovulating’ and ‘PMS’ – in a such a way that the female body seems to become time itself. “I think ‘the soul of time’ is a pretty accurate way of describing PMS,” she writes, “It’s not just a metaphor. It IS the soul of time. That’s why it’s so unpleasant.”

Also in her mid thirties, Heti’s narrator is deciding whether or not to have children; a struggle characterised as ‘Jacob Wrestling the Angel’, an Old Testament story about the conflict between body and soul. For the women in Motherhood and Saint Frances, the desires of the heart and mind are at odds with their biology. Bridget is pregnant but wants an abortion: her biological clock might be ticking but the timing isn’t right. Meanwhile the body of Heti’s narrator wants her to become a mother in spite of her palpable objections. “Why is my body doing this inside me every month?” writes Heti, “How neglected and abandoned is this little animal inside me that is doing its work so diligently and so well – this tiny uterus, these mushy ovaries, these fallopian tubes and my brain. It has no idea I need nothing from it. It just keeps on working. If only I could talk to it and tell it to stop.” 

This idea is exquisitely captured in the anthropomorphic, stop motion wombs of (feminine hygiene company) Bodyform’s new #WombStories advertising campaign. The animation is contrasted with live action scenes that reveal the effect of the wombs on the women they inhabit, bringing the very contrast between body and soul into sharp focus. Women have erupted in support of the short film: the physical inconvenience of menstruation, hinted at in most conventional adverts, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Bodyform’s #WombStories short film

Heti’s narrator, for instance, is in the thrall of PMS, while Bridget’s employer, Maya (Charin Alvarez), sinks beneath the tide of postpartum depression. But how can a women figure out what to do with her life when she can no longer trust her emotions? “I began thinking about the soul of time as having something to do with cocoons,” writes Heti, “I recently learned that what happens in a cocoon is not that a caterpillar grows wings and turns into a butterfly. Rather, the caterpillar turns to mush. It disintegrates, and out of this mush a new creature grows”. But, “Why does no-one talk about the mush?” she asks, “Or about how, for any change to happen, we must for some time be nothing – be mush. That is where you are right now – in a state of mush.” 

Negotiating these transitions is made harder by societal pressures that close off avenues for honest conversation. Pressure from social media and wannabe grandparents haunt the background of Saint Frances where failure to make it as an “impressive person” provokes scorn from even her female peers. While an extreme close up of a woman’s “Unborn Lives Matter” slogan intrudes on Bridget’s point of view, the boyfriend of Heti’s narrator argues that other mothers, “want you to be in the same boat they’re in. They want you to have the same handicap they have… He called it the biggest scam of all time.”

It’s this pressure to become parents that the directionless, thirty-something couple in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young finally surrender to. But by prescribing only one way to grow up, Baumbach’s resolution seems a misstep. By contrast, the protagonists in Motherhood and Saint Frances push against society’s control of their bodies, asserting the freedom of choice.

Naomi Watts While We're Young
Naomi Watts in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young

Indeed, both Heti and O’Sullivan’s characters find solace in talking openly, negotiating the potential scorn of other mothers to find safe spaces with like-minded women. Saint Frances plays like an anthem for female friendship, communication and support while, for Heti, it’s the acceptance of equality between all women – those who choose children and those who don’t – that provides the greatest comfort. 

Today, the harm presented by a screen and advertising culture that advocates a “kinder, more gentle portrayal” of female bodies is becoming clear. Sanitised and censored depictions leave women alone with their experiences. Normal experiences are made abnormal by their very invisibility. Bodyform’s recent survey found that 21% of women feel that society wants them to keep silent about their experiences, while 44% said that doing so negatively affects their mental health. Bridget’s honesty is comforting but it’s also vicarious: an ideal that screen culture is yet to fully embrace. We need more films like Saint Frances, more books like Motherhood and more #WombStories.

Saint Frances trailer from Vertigo Releasing

Saint Frances is in cinemas from 17th July and coming soon to DVD. Motherhood is available now in paperback.

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