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How French drama ‘Happening’ centers the dangerous stakes of illegal abortion

The new film “Happening” is set in 1963 and yet it suddenly feels like a possible window into the future.

Directed by Audrey Diwan, who co-wrote the adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel of the same name, the film follows a young French college student Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) as she attempts to get an abortion after discovering she is pregnant. Though abortion became legal in France in 1975, in 1963 it very much was not, with potential prison time for the woman, whoever performed the procedure and anyone who helped.

Isolated from her friends and family, Anne becomes increasingly driven as the weeks pass by to find a solution to her problem — anything that will allow her to continue on with her life as she planned and fulfill her goal to become a writer.

While it premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, winning the top prize and earning international acclaim, the film’s U.S. release this weekend comes just days after the news that the Supreme Court is likely to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States. The reality depicted in the movie — one of panic, fear, knitting needles and impromptu medical procedures performed by unlicensed strangers — could again become all too real for many American women.

In an emailed statement, Diwan responded to the recent news, writing, “The purpose of art is also to bring to light some hidden truths. We all know, time has proven it, that when abortion becomes illegal, women who feel the need for it find other solutions. And not safe ones.

“l think that those who want to intervene in the abortion debate, whether for or against, should at least know clearly what a clandestine abortion is. We cannot talk about what we don’t know. And I include myself here: before reading ‘Happening,’ I participated in this conversation for a long time without knowing … I was wrong. We should all know, this must not stay silent.”

With an intimate visual style that keeps the viewer close to Vartolomei’s electrifying performance, the film has the pacing of a thriller as Anne determinedly pushes on. The movie is the second for the French-Lebanese filmmaker Diwan, following her 2019 debut feature, “Losing It.”

Recently the director and star participated in a Q&A following a screening of the film as part of the L.A. Times’ Indie Focus Screening Series. (The event occurred before the news of the impending Supreme Court decision.) The screening was the last time that Diwan and Vartolomei have been scheduled to appear together before the release of the film, after many months promoting the movie around the world.

At one point, as Vartolomei earnestly expressed what the film has meant to her, Diwan said, “You’re going to make me cry.” With a playful tone that underlined the closeness and collaboration between the two of them, Vartolomei responded, “It’s actually what I’m trying to do.”

Audrey Diwan holds the Golden Lion award for “Happening” at the closing ceremony of the 2021 Venice Film Festival.

(Associated Press)

Audrey, as the movie has been going to festivals and shown around the world, how have you found the response to it? Especially considering the renewed controversy around abortion rights, have you had any kind of pushback against you and the film at all?

Audrey Diwan: No … I never tried to be provocative. We’re not there to discuss whether a woman should or not have an abortion. It’s [about] how it happens when it happens with illegal abortion.

I met people who are against [when] they went to the screenings, but we always made it a discussion. And to me it’s important, that’s also the purpose of art. I remember one, a young guy — [the audience] were students and you can hear through the discussion that everybody’s pro-abortion. And at the end, this young guy raised his hand and said, “I admit that I’m against,” and some people boo him. I was like, “No, it’s actually bold to stand up and say that.” They’re the same school, and he’s the only one. So I said, “No, we want to hear you.”

And then he explained why he was against, but he also admitted that he had never seen portrayed in such a real way what it could be to go to an illegal abortion. I don’t say that he changed his mind in an hour and a half — I don’t think that things happens like that — but still, something was slowly in progress or moving along.

The discussion around abortion rights and access here in the United States has heated up again recently. Were you thinking of contemporary conversations around the issue when you were making the movie?

Diwan: I would say the opposite. I mean, I did it for a very personal self-centered reason. I have this visceral will to tell this story, but … if we have to go and discuss again, everywhere in the world about abortion being legal or illegal, at least we should know what is an illegal abortion.

I think that that’s where my movie can be useful, as the book is useful. When I read it, I was like, “Oh my God.” Then when I started writing, lots of people financing the movie told me, “Why do you want to make a movie about abortion now? You already have the law.” And I was always saying, “I hope you’ll tell the same thing to the next director that comes and says, ‘I want to make a World War II movie.’ Because it’s over, right?”

It made me realize that those kinds of questions come with a certain kind of topic too. “Don’t talk about it.” We were raised in silence. And this silence is a major weapon of the people who don’t want the world to change.

So we managed to do the movie and it was difficult. We had to fight a lot. And then the discussion was reversed because Poland changed its law and again abortion was illegal. Then we were on way to Venice, when we heard about what was going on in Texas, and suddenly everybody asked me, “Did you know?” But you see … the way we perceive the timing is very ethnocentric. It’s just about being in certain countries, not having in mind that so many countries in the world don’t allow women to have abortion.

The way we perceive the timing is very ethnocentric. It’s just about being in certain countries, not having in mind that so many countries in the world don’t allow women to have abortion.

— Audrey Diwan, director of “Happening”

How did you discover the novel by Annie Ernaux and what made you want to adapt that?

Diwan: When I myself had an abortion, I wanted to read on the topic and a friend advised me to read it. So I didn’t read it at all in order to make a movie, I just wanted to find a text that would help my thinking. And by reading it, first I realized my lack of knowledge regarding the topic and also what the main difference was in my mind between medicalized — what I’d been through — and illegal abortion.

And I would say that the main difference is that medicalized abortion always goes through some kind of a routine, whereas illegal abortion is random. I kept thinking about the book as some kind of an intimate thriller, and I was wondering how much I could make some kind of a physical experience out of it.

Anamaria, did you know the book before the project came to you?

Anamaria Vartolomei: No, I read the script and then I bought the book and read it. And as Audrey said, I was shocked by my ignorance towards this subject that is so taboo and shrouded in silence. And I felt very angry, about my lack of knowledge and against obviously the injustice that many women have to face in many countries that don’t allow them to abort. So this anger kind of fed me to portray this character. I was so determined and ambitious, and I tried to do it in the fairest way I could.

What else was it about the script and the character that appealed to you?

Vartolomei: I think that it’s not only a movie about an illegal abortion, it’s a sort of pursuit of freedom. And I liked how she portrayed the journey of a woman, the young woman that goes through the discovery of her body, of her sexuality, she feels intellectual desire, sexual desire. She wants to liberate herself socially. It’s not only about illegal abortion. It’s about discovering herself.

And I think she becomes a woman at the end of the movie. As I did also. So I think I started the shooting as a young lady and finished it as a woman because I fed myself with those qualities that my character has.

Audrey, can you talk a bit more about how the movie is about more than just Anne’s need for an abortion? It’s also about her desire to grow.

Diwan: I talked a lot about it with Annie Ernaux. I think I never intended to make a movie about illegal abortion. I picture the whole story as a story of this character. I love and I really admire who she became, Annie Ernaux, as a woman and who she already was, because she always tried to write the truth. What was exactly true. She’s not making any legend out of her story. She’s sometimes a bit cruel about portraying herself.

When I worked with her she was 80, she’s now 82, and she’s always ready to talk about her past. So I speak with this very respected older writer and she’s free to tell me about her sexual desire or when she was in her 20s , but also what it meant to her to say that sentence out loud, “I’m going to be a writer,” and she’s coming from the working class and she’s the first generation going to university. She told me a lot about everything that was around and underneath the topic and that nourished the story as she goes on this quest for freedom, as Anamaria said.

A woman in a dress makes her way through a crowd

Anamaria Vartolomei as Anne in Audrey Diwan’s “Happening.”

(IFC Films)

Can you talk about the style of the movie? As you were saying, from the very start, you knew that you wanted to shoot in this intimate, close-up way.

Diwan: I wanted the movie to be this kind of physical experience. And the main idea I had was how not to look at her but try to be her. And so everything came from that first question. First of all, I really didn’t want to make a period piece. I think that the term period piece goes along with some kind of nostalgia, and I really had no nostalgia for the ‘60s, even more regarding women’s rights. So I wanted to go to what was essential to me, the body of the girl.

[To capture the] experience means, for instance [using] very long shots, because if we do things too quickly — like if I ask Anamaria to show you that she has desire or she’s in pain — we can do that in like two or three seconds, but then you don’t feel. And if we keep on rolling, because it’s hard for her, it’s hard for the crew, then the audience — and I include me with the audience, I’m the first audience — we start feeling how she feels. And I don’t do many angles, so I can’t edit. So we had to find the exact lengths of every sequence on set. But all the details go along with the idea of being her.

Anamaria, what was it like for you to get used to shooting in that style, to have the camera so close to you when you were performing?

Vartolomei: I think luckily we have, very naturally, a sort of osmosis with [Laurent Tangy] the D.P. We kind of entered in the same dance together and we became one. I think that at some point the camera became my shadow and I didn’t feel the camera anymore. The fact that the camera is always in the back of my character, it felt like something was pushing her and she couldn’t step back from her decision. So it felt like some big force kind of pushed her even further, on to her goal.

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