Happening Director Audrey Diwan On the Unfortunate Timeliness of Her Abortion Drama

The French period-piece film is haunting, visceral, and in today’s political context, a warning.

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Fabrizio Rongione and Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening.Courtesy of Wild Bunch via Everett Collection

In Happening, a haunting, visceral drama directed by Audrey Diwan, a 23-year-old student, Anne, discovers she is pregnant. It’s the early 1960s, when abortion and contraception were both illegal in France. This means she has two options: She can carry the pregnancy to term against her will, abandoning her ambitions and hopes for the future, or she can try to find a way to obtain an illegal abortion. She is well aware that the second choice could land her in jail or kill her.

Anne — played with stoicism and grace by Anamaria Vartolomei — is certain she cannot stay pregnant. She’s a student with incredible promise, the first of her family to attend college, and she dreams of becoming a writer. “I want children one day,” she tells her doctor, horrified, after he confirms her condition. “Just not instead of a future.”

Happening unfolds like an existential thriller. It’s structured like a countdown in reverse, with on-screen titles announcing how much time has passed: three weeks, four weeks, then five… Anne is self-sufficient and resolute, but there is almost nowhere for her to turn; anyone she asks for help could be named an accomplice to a crime, and information is scarce. As the weeks drag on, anxiety turns to panic and panic turns to desperation. Diwan depicts, in unflinching but empathetic detail, the dread of carrying an unwanted pregnancy — months dragging on as your body changes, as your options run out, and your future narrows — and the lengths that women will go through to free themselves from the clutches of that dread.

Happening is based on a true story, a book by Annie Ernaux with the same name, which recounts the weeks leading up to her illegal abortion in 1963. Although these events took place half a century ago, the story has now taken on a frightening new sense of urgency. It no longer seems like a depiction of a repressive past; in today’s political context, with Roe v. Wade almost certain to fall, it feels like more of a warning.

GQ spoke with Diwan over Zoom about the process of making the film, and her thoughts on its sudden timeliness.

GQ: Why did you want to adapt this book?

Audrey Diwan: I wasn’t looking for a book to adapt at all. I had an abortion myself, and I needed a text to help me think about it. I couldn’t find it, so my first reaction was to try to create that text. I interviewed a few friends around me, and one of them advised me to read Happening … I read the book and realized the text I needed already existed.

The first thing that struck me was the difference between what I’d been through — medicalized abortion — and illegal abortion. I had a lack of knowledge. When we talk about illegal abortion, I think that people don’t actually know what we’re talking about. Medicalized abortion goes according to a routine … whereas when you go through illegal abortion, everything is random: who you’re going to meet, whether that person helps you or turns you over to the police. Are you going to end up in jail or in the hospital? Are you going to die?

The suspense in the book was so unbearable — of course I knew she didn’t die, because it’s Annie Ernaux writing about it, but still, I couldn’t stop reading the book until the end, thinking, “This is some kind of very strange, intimate thriller.” I thought about it for a year and a half, and then I decided to make a film.

I found the framing of the book interesting — it focuses so much on the emotions and the oppressive dread leading up to the abortion rather than the abortion itself. There is a passage where Ernaux writes, “I would not want crying and shouting to feature in this text … Above all, I wish to capture the impression of a steady flow of unhappiness.” Were you drawn to this emotional register?

What I like most about the book is her. I was driven to the movie by the character — I love who she became, I love the writer, I love the way she thinks. Her books helped to build my mind. Being a young girl, she has sexual desire and says it aloud. She has intellectual desire and stands behind it. She wants to be a writer, and she’s looking for a way to say it out loud. She’s coming from the working class and going to a bourgeois university.

I could feel her quest for freedom on every page. The way I portrayed it in my mind was like, I’m going to make a movie about that girl coming to be free, and on that quest for freedom she’ll have to have an illegal abortion.

It’s almost like a hero’s journey, in a way. I noticed she kept repeating this phrase: “I’ll manage.”
That’s something I say most of the time: “I’ll manage.” [laughs] Somehow you always relate to the character you create.

With Anamaria Vartolomei, my actress, we used to call Anne “the soldier.” It’s not a moral movie. We’re not trying to figure out whether you should get an abortion or not. She has made her decision, and she’s like on a battlefield, and she has to find solutions. She has to fulfill her goal, whatever happens, because her own future depends on who she’s going to meet and who is going to help her.

The film is structured as a reverse countdown, racing against an ambiguous clock. What was the thought behind making time this almost physical force in the film?

There was a sentence in the book — I’m going to badly translate it. To summarize, it was like, “Time wasn’t day-by-day, going to school and taking lessons. It has become something growing inside of me.” Time, this weird thing growing inside of you. I was like, “Ok, so, it’s a body horror movie, this sentence, somehow.”

In the first version of the screenplay, I thought, “If she’s in a hurry, I’m going to make very short sequences.” And then I realized that I must do the exact opposite. Time is simply time for everybody else, except for her. She’s in her emergency, and we know it; we’re connected to her as an audience because we know the timeline of pregnancy. But the rest of the youths have no idea, and they all take their time. It’s the difference between those two time schedules that makes us feel how she feels.

It’s relativity for women — those weeks exclude us from the rest of the world, time becomes secret inside your own body … I wanted to think about this specific moment that takes you out of the world, out of time as the rest of the world experiences it.

Most of the other characters of Anne’s age are sex-obsessed and talk a lot about sex, but also insisted that they’d never actually had sex. It sort of felt like she was the only person depicted in the film who was honest about her desires. Why was that?

The way we talk about sex and pleasure is always full of hypocrisy. We worked a lot on that idea with my co-writer, Marcia Romano, because I wanted it to appear slowly. At first, it’s only girls talking. Then it’s one [pornographic] image [Anne’s classmates share]. Then it’s a girl who imitates masturbation. And then my character is ready to embrace the idea of her own pleasure … I think this is something beautiful, but not everyone agrees with me.

There is some shame here. It’s very interesting, the way we’ve been raised with the idea of shame. In the end, it’s very political, because we’re talking about the freedom of half of humanity. On one side, you have sex and shame, which are social and culture ideas. On the other, you have politics, because if you have sex [when abortion is banned] and you get pregnant, and you don’t want it, it’s your punishment — it’s the punishment for the girl who had sex.

This film is now being received as incredibly timely, despite being set in the 60s. What do you think has changed since then, in our attitudes towards women and sexuality — if anything?

I think that many things haven’t changed. It’s not the same story, but the same kinds of narratives. I knew, writing the movie, that it was a relevant story in many countries. Of course, I never imagined that it would be true in America.

If my movie is timely — now I understand it is for one reason. So many people, including myself, have intervened in the abortion debate not knowing what illegal abortion is. I grew up with the idea, that there was, back in the day, illegal abortion in France, but I had no idea what the level of pain was, what the process was, what you have to go through, what happens, what the risks are. I didn’t know much about it. If we have to go through that debate again, we should know what we are talking about.

I also feel like a film about restricting abortion would feel timely at any point in the past few years.

It’s interesting, because when I first wrote Happening, many people asked, “Why do you want to make this movie now? We already have the law [legalizing abortion] in France.” I was like, “Oh, really? I hope you’re going to ask the next filmmaker that wants to make a WWII movie the same question, ‘because it’s over, it’s over.’” I realized how much we were raised being silent about it. This sentence, coming over and over again, “Why do you want to make the movie?” — “Please stay silent, please stay silent.”

In her book, Annie Ernaux never used the word ‘abortion.’ I did the same in the movie, in light of the fact that we are never even supposed to say the word.

In one of the final scenes of the film, Anne proclaims for the first time, “I want to write.” Do you see writing as a means of transcendence?

Annie Ernaux published a new book a few days ago called The Young Man, and at the beginning, there’s a sentence that I will try to translate: “If I don’t write them, things haven’t come to an end, they have only been lived.” I think the writing process is half of living. You live, and then you write, and then you get to the end of the process.

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