Audrey Diwan on Happening, Her Illegal Abortion Drama Set In 1960s France

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Happening, 2022
Happening, 2022(Film still)

The French director talks about adapting Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel for the screen, why intimacy is always intertwined with politics, and the perils of illegal abortion

Near the end of Happening, French memoirist Annie Ernaux’s novel of the backstreet abortion she had in Paris in 1963, the writer recounts the setting for her procedure. She describes from memory the domestic flat with the enamel basin and the probe that glows on the surface, concluding, “I don’t believe there is a single museum in the world whose collections feature a work called The Abortionist’s Studio.” But it’s all there – the same ordinary surroundings, the same contorted body shapes and sad expressions – in Paula Rego’s Abortion Series, made in pastel two years before Happening was published in 2000, hanging in galleries around the world today. 

“I read the book as a strange and intense thriller,” says Audrey Diwan, the writer and director behind a new film version of Happening. The feature, which picked up the Golden Lion award for best film at last year’s Venice film festival, is the sum of many parts – at times traumatising, disheartening, but ultimately necessary and still relevant, animating not only Ernaux’s words but Rego’s pictures too. “I realised how little I knew about the journey [then],” continues Diwan, referencing France’s anti-abortion law that only changed in 1975. “She’s fighting for our freedom. She wanted to have sexual freedom, intellectual freedom, to get from a social class to another social class, and she needed an illegal abortion.” The journey stayed with her, and a year and a half later she co-wrote the screenplay with Marcia Romano.

While Rego’s images are political – produced in reaction to Portugal’s failed referendum on abortion in 1998, they helped motivate the support that led to the country legalising abortion in 2007 – Ernaux’s account is deeply personal, written 40 years after the event and interspersed with intimate details. Both works are woven into the wider political cloth of reproductive rights, however, and offer a kind of visibility for other women. “I never tried to make a movie political,” Diwan tells AnOther. “I think intimacy is always political, and we don’t realise how much. Are you allowed to have sex or not? That was the question at the time. It’s political if you’re a woman and you’re free to have sex and not only be a mother. So when you ask yourself questions [like this], you realise that so many intimate questions are actually related to politics.”

The director’s shooting style favours long shots and few cuts, which meant incorporating a choreography that saw the process on-set play out “like an orchestra”. Rejecting formal rehearsals, Diwan instead preferred to find the scene together she says: “I strongly believe that if you try to make the movie before doing the movie, you will lose something. Of course there’s a risk, but that’s part of the journey.” In Anamaria Vartolomei, who as the gifted literature student Anne Duchesne appears in every scene, she describes finding an intellectual partner. “Anamaria understands Annie’s writing, so very soon I could have conversations about the text with her,” offers Diwan, “because I’m not a puppet master, I enjoy building the character with the actor.”

Watching Happening, you don’t so much observe the action as endure each beat alongside the characters, from the exasperating act at the doctor’s office, to the desperate scene where Anne tries to self-administer her abortion. “I wanted a physical experience, to access the exact feelings of the moments and do it through the body – so you’re not watching her, you are actually her,” the director explains. “There is a huge fear that you feel in the book, that comes from being alone. Anyone who helps a woman get an illegal abortion can end up in jail, so there are no good and bad people, only very scared people.” 

This sense of loneliness is paramount, and engineered in part through the film’s earlier scenes, where Anne and best friends Brigitte and Hélène – a trio so close they share the same piece of gum – hang out at the cafeteria, the local disco and the park. “There are methods,” remarks Anne, as they discuss the abstract idea of an unwanted pregnancy one afternoon. “Never say that,” snaps Brigitte, “not even as a joke.” When her friends eventually learn of her situation, they desert her. Time further intensifies Anne’s isolation, which Diwan uses, mapping the pregnancy in weeks on screen. “In the book, there was a sentence – ‘time is something strange growing inside you’ – and I was like, what is this time? It’s not dates anymore, it’s weeks, because she’s fighting against time. And that is a thriller part of the movie,” she says. “I didn’t intend to make it a thriller, or a body horror movie, [but] it is because it’s reality.” 

Happening is out in UK cinemas from April 22.