After winning the Golden Lion at Venice 2021, followed by actress Anamaria Vartolomei scoring Best Female Newcomer at the 2022 Césars, Audrey Diwan’s harrowing abortion drama “Happening” is finally coming to a theater near you. And it couldn’t be more urgent or timely.
The film will open in American theaters the same week that the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is reportedly on the verge of reversing the court’s 1973 decision in favor of Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal across the United States. Now, 24 red states are preparing abortion restrictions. The frightening reality of France in 1963 in “Happening” has suddenly become, not a distant memory, but a stark portent of things to come.
“Happening” is immersive, luring us close to the experience of a 23-year-old student trying to get an illegal abortion back in 1963: a taboo, repressed, internal, silent journey. She cannot even tell her own mother (Agnes Varda’s “Vagabond” star Sandrine Bonnaire) because getting an abortion could land her in jail.
Diwan was going to write her own film about her experience with abortion until she read the diaristic 2001 novel of the same name by Annie Ernaux, a writer she already admired. “I didn’t know this one,” she said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “And when I met her, she explained that of all her books, this was the only one that didn’t get the journalists’ attention. They didn’t want to talk that much about it. And when I read the book, I realized that I had the material.”
The filmmaker continued, “It’s not a book about illegal abortion. It’s a book about this character that I love, and the way she talks about her own sexual and intellectual desire as she’s going from being working class to university and to find her place in the world. To go that way, she has to get an illegal abortion.”
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When the two writers spent a day together, Ernaux answered questions and filled in gaps for the novelist-turned-writer-director, who then sent her several drafts of her script (co-written with Marcia Romano). Ernaux and Diwan sought an accurate, no-holds-barred depiction of what chasing an illegal abortion was like back in 1963, 12 years before France finally made it not a crime in 1975 (ad two years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Roe v. Wade).
Diwan was struck by the difference between a routine medicalized procedure and an illegal abortion, where “everything is random,” she said. “You never know what’s going to happen to you, the people you’re going to meet, how are they going to help you? Are they going to turn you [in] to the police? Will you end up in jail? In a hospital? Are you going to die? I mean, that is strong, intimate, and variable suspense.”
This sophomore film was not easy to get made. “It’s hard, even nowadays, to convince the industry to let us do this,” she said. “And many people told me, ‘Why do you want to make a movie about illegal abortion? We’re in France, you have the law.’ And I was like, OK, so I really hope you’re going to say the same thing to the next filmmaker that comes and says, ‘I want to make a World War II movie.'”
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The movie got made thanks to the continuing support of producers Édouard Weil and Alice Girard, who backed Diwan’s debut 2019 feature, “Losing It.” “They fought for my work,” she said. ‘When I made a first movie, nobody heard too much about it. But they came to me and said, ‘We do believe in you.’ I’m not sure they represent the whole system. We knew from the beginning that at some point, it would become political.”
The director set the goal to follow the “intimate suspense” of this young woman’s physical voyage. “We carefully thought about how we should use silence,” Diwan said. “So how do you make silence be cinematographic? I wrote Anamaria inner monologues, and she helped me with that. So whenever she’s silent, she has an obsessive idea. We and the composers [Evgueni and Sacha Galperine] tried to make the audience hear what she has in mind.”
Another way to lure the viewer into the film frame is its nearly square 1:37 aspect ratio. “It’s a very narrative ratio,” she said, “because you don’t see people coming, they just show up on screen. She fears people looking at her, because somebody’s going to find out that she’s pregnant. When they appear on screen, we are in the same level of tension as she is. At the beginning, she’s surrounded by other students, she’s part of the picture. But the more she goes into the unknown, the more I want to be on her back, following her as if we were her, opening doors, not knowing who’s going to be behind and what’s going to happen. So we play with this immersive process. And we use it as a frame to be close to her and then it’s a bit claustrophobic. It’s an intimate thriller.”
Courtesy of IFC Films
As she was making the film, Diwan gave her actors movies to watch, from “Vagabond” to “Elephant” and “Fish Tank” and “Rosetta.” While the film is set in 1963, Diwan didn’t let period details overwhelm her story. “I really didn’t want to do the period piece,” she said. “Because period always comes with nostalgia. When you start finding the nice clothes, the nice setup, you’re lost. I wanted to go to what was essential to me: her and her body. It’s set all in the past, but it’s always the same story, nowadays — sorry — somewhere in the world.”
The film came close to becoming the official French submission for the Oscars, but Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner “Titane” landed the slot. “Happening” might have had a better chance at landing an Oscar nomination than “Titane,” but Diwan was rooting for her compatriot sister. (Both directors are being pursued by Hollywood.)
“We didn’t want to be one against the other,” Diwan said. “We’re on the same team. We’re both French directors. We are trying to be radical in our own ways. I’m still very happy for her. Let’s be collaborative, let’s stay together, and not let the system break that kind of friendship.”
Not letting the system break good, true things seems to the watchword of the film and the world it is now being released into. Last year, while on her way to premiere the film at Venice, Diwan heard about the new regressive Texas abortion law. “The laws can be changed,” she said. “I would have never have expected that when I was writing the movie. It’s pretty scary.”
IFC Films releases “Happening” in theaters on Friday, May 6.