In a library, in France, in the 1960s, a young woman glances over her shoulder before opening a textbook to inspect a cross-section of a pregnant female body. A succession of nested U shapes show the way the uterus expands as the foetus grows. The foetus looks like a lima bean with legs. Someone comes; the young woman shields the book from view.
“Before you could ask questions on the internet, everything that happened inside the body was a mystery,” says Audrey Diwan, the director of the film Happening, in which this scene appears early on. “Something is taking place inside her body, her body is doing this work, but she doesn’t understand anything about it.”
Happening, which won the Golden Lion award for best film at the Venice film festival last year, is adapted from the searing 2000 autobiography L’Événement by Annie Ernaux, one of France’s most acclaimed authors. In it she recounts her illegal abortion in 1963. The young woman in the library, Anne, is a literature student from a working-class background; the unwanted pregnancy occurs just as the year is drawing to a close and she is studying for her exams. It jeopardises everything she – and by extension, her parents, who are supporting her unusual ambitions – has been working for. “I’m pregnant,” she says to one doctor she consults. “I want to continue my studies. It’s essential for me.” He kicks her out of his office, prescribing medication “to make your period return”, which, it later emerges, is actually used to strengthen the embryo.
The word abortion isn’t uttered once.
In France, in some ways still a deeply Catholic, conservative country, abortion wasn’t legalised until 1975; a young woman who found herself in trouble and didn’t want to give birth had very few options. Anyone who helped her – a doctor, a friend, an abortionist (what they used to call a faiseuse-d’anges, or angel-maker) – could go to jail, and the doctor would lose his licence. And jail wasn’t even the worst thing that could happen to a young woman who obtained an illegal abortion. In a scene with the doctor who first informs Anne that she’s pregnant, she implores him to do something.
“You can’t ask me that,” he says. “Not me, not anyone. The law is unsparing. Anyone who helps can end up in jail. You too. And only if you’re spared the worst. Every month a girl tries her luck and dies in atrocious pain. You don’t want to be that girl.”
In Ernaux’s book, the text moves back and forth between the events of 1963 and the present day of its writing in the late 1990s, in which Ernaux recounts feeling compelled to get down on paper what happened to her. “I realise this account may exasperate or repel some readers,” she writes, parenthetically, in Tanya Leslie’s translation. “I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled. There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.”
Diwan chose not to integrate these present-day reflections, in a voiceover for instance. “If I had included the author looking in the rearview mirror I would have confined this film to the past,” she said. And in her adaptation, Diwan tells me, it was important that Happening not feel like an artefact.
“People asked me, why make this movie now,” when abortion is legal in France? But, Diwan points out, “what happened in France is still unfortunately the case in many countries. And while I was making the film, I learned what was happening in Texas, where they were challenging Roe v Wade, and then people’s reactions changed completely. They started saying it was good to make this film now, that it was necessary.”
As for Ernaux herself, she said she was “bowled over” by the film when she left the theatre. “I was immediately plunged back into those days of waiting for a period that never came, which felt like a kind of silent, incredulous horror, back in the days when abortion was absolutely forbidden, when we hardly dared utter the word.”
This was underscored, she said, by the performance of the lead actor, Anamaria Vartolomei. “In her body, in the way she walks, in her gaze, her gestures, she brings into existence, in the strongest sense of the word, the ordinariness of this tragedy: going to class, or to a student party, and having to find a solution, and then money, because time is inexorably moving forward within her body. No self-pity, or tears… just determination.”
In the book, Ernaux reflects that although she is writing from a time when abortion has become legal, this doesn’t lessen the importance of talking about reproductive rights. “Paradoxically, when a new law abolishing discrimination is passed, former victims tend to remain silent on the grounds that ‘now it’s all over’. So what went on is surrounded by the same veil of secrecy as before.” It is precisely because abortion is now legal in France that Ernaux writes that she can address not only the political importance of abortion but to describe what it felt like to “face the reality of this unforgettable event”.
“I wrote Happening to preserve the memory of the savagery inflicted on millions of girls and women. It was also to descend as far as I could into what I call, at one point, ‘the shock of the real’.”
But films have a visual power that books usually do not. There is one scene in particular that Ernaux and Diwan both refer to that I can’t describe here because it would ruin the taut suspense of the story and undermine Diwan’s carefully paced work. In describing what was at stake for Diwan filming that scene, Ernaux told me, “it was important to dare to confront the viewer with an unbearable image… I did it in my book, but I knew it would be a more difficult proposition to do it in the film. Audrey didn’t hesitate, and she pulled it off.”
Happening is only Diwan’s second feature film, after 2019’s Mais vous êtes fous, about a man struggling with drug addiction and the impact of this on his wife and daughters, and a dozen or so screenplays (Diwan previously authored several books and worked as a journalist and a magazine editor). In addition to winning the top prize at Venice, Happening was nominated at the Baftas and the Césars.
In terms of the film’s cinematography, Diwan wanted to give a sense of the era without recreating it mimetically. “I asked the art director to create [a version of] the 1960s that would go unnoticed. The costumer was tasked with representing a certain social class without pointing it out. For example all the working-class students were very restricted in terms of what they wore – Annie [Ernaux] told me that – they each have three outfits, all that would fit in the kind of small leather suitcase they would have brought from home to university.
“The idea was not to be anachronistic, but also not to make a historical drama, because to reconstitute it exactly would be to freeze the moment in the past. And I have to admit that for me the story we’re telling doesn’t inspire the least bit of nostalgia.”
There are more oblique references to the time as well. At the lunch table, the girls debate Camus versus Sartre, “a question of the gaze”. In their literature lecture, the professor reads a poem by Louis Aragon called “Elsa au miroir” (Elsa at Her Mirror), about his wife, Elsa Triolet, “combing her golden hair, as if she enjoyed tormenting her memory”. Anne is called on to give her reading of the poem. “He uses a lover’s drama to evoke a national one. It’s a political poem. For me they’re war references. In 1942, when the poem was published, Elsa Triolet and Aragon were communists. So I think they both hope for a patriotic awakening.” With this reading, Anne reframes what seems like a private concern as a public one.
And 1942 is only 20 years before Anne and her friends sit in their amphitheatre; they live in a world that is still processing the horrors of the second world war. France’s former colonies fought for their independence: the first Indochina war ended eight years earlier, and the Algerian war has only just ended the previous year, another debacle to which the French establishment refused to put in words – they called it the événements en Algérie, the “events” in Algeria, using the same word Ernaux chose for her title. “This thing,” Ernaux writes, “had no place in language.”
Diwan says she didn’t want to make a didactic or a documentary film. “As Annie Ernaux puts it in her text, she wanted to touch the truth of her memories. So I really tried to capture the way the truth of the instant is perceived in the body.” For her, more than the abortion itself, Diwan says, Happening is a film about this young woman and her pursuit of “sexual freedom” and “intellectual desire”. It’s about the way she feels like a defector from one class to another – “or, that is, she feels she no longer belongs to her working-class family, but she hasn’t yet found her place in the bourgeois world of the university”.
Diwan stays close to Anne’s perspective; we spend much of the film looking directly over Vartolomei’s shoulder. The feeling of closeness, almost of claustrophobia, is emphasised by Diwan’s decision to film in a nearly square format (using a 1.37:1 aspect ratio) rather than a more conventional widescreen format. “The idea was to focus on her body and not the setting. I asked myself: how can I film this so that we’re not watching Anne, but rather become her?”
The past few years, some (by no means all) in the French film world have taken to heart the lessons of #MeToo, and thought critically about what role women play in the cinema, onscreen and off. This led to the founding of Le Collectif 50/50, which militates for equality of representation and compensation within the industry. Diwan was one of the first signatories when the group was launched, and when she made Happening, she assembled a team of mainly female crew members around her.
But she has also been asked many times in promoting the film if it espouses a “female gaze”, a term that has been popularised in French cinema over the past few years, in part thanks to the work of the French writer and scholar Iris Brey. Her book Le regard féminin (The Female Gaze, 2020) built on a tradition of feminist film theory to offer a mode by which a film could be understood, or not, to enact a female point of view, “a gaze,” as Brey wrote, “that allows us to share the lived experience of a female body onscreen”.
Diwan herself describes feeling at first “joyful” about having the term applied to her work, but that more recently she’s had the impression that her gaze has been “circumscribed” by her gender, that as a director she was “reduced to and defined by” her gender. No sooner had she accepted the mantle of the female gaze than she was “limited” by it.
“But I don’t think any woman would have made the same film. The gaze is complex, and gender is only one part of it,” she says.
But there is a difference between a film that depicts a woman going through an experience like an unwanted pregnancy and an illegal abortion, and one that tries viscerally to convey that experience. That’s the female gaze, and this is precisely what Diwan has managed to do, in terms of her formal choices as a director.
The duration of the sequences, for instance, is something Diwan says she thought carefully about; she knew she was going to film in long takes, and that editing would be minimal because there would be very few reverse angles, so she had to find what she calls la durée juste – the film-maker’s answer, perhaps, to le mot juste. Filming Vartolomei attempting to perform her own abortion by sticking a knitting needle up her vagina, Diwan stays with her just long enough that it is agonising to witness, without it tipping into voyeurism or trauma porn.
In Happening, Ernaux writes, “I don’t believe there is a single museum in the world whose collections feature a work called The Abortionist’s Studio”. Why, I asked her, is it so important for artists or writers to depict it, to tell the stories of their own bodies?
“Art brings to light – makes exist – reality unhinged from its contingencies, its dispersal into particular existences. A painting, a book, or a film that depicts an abortion ‘puts something into the world’: it’s no longer something personal, hidden, or only a women’s problem, but that it concerns all of humanity.
“Maybe it’s a shocking thing to say, but that’s what I was trying to do in Happening: to give a kind of grandeur to an act that is so connected to the body, to death, to time. In her film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma shows the painter Marianne creating a painting of the young servant whose abortion she and her lover, Héloïse, witnessed.” Ernaux explains that Sciamma’s scene was directly influenced by her book. “It was a way of responding to what I had written: this lack of artistic representation of what has historically been a reality for millions of women.”
“I did this film with anger, with desire, with my belly, my guts, my heart and my head,” Diwan said, accepting her award in Venice. “I have finished putting into words what I consider to be an extreme human experience, bearing on life and death, time, law, ethics and taboo – an experience that sweeps through the body,” wrote Ernaux at the end of her book.
“These things happened to me so that I might recount them,” Ernaux continued. “Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.” And then, perhaps, to become celluloid images projected into a dark theatre, or pixels on a small rectangular screen that hasn’t yet been invented, adapted by a woman who hasn’t yet been born, merging into the lives and heads of those who live in a world where some can and have had legal abortions, and where millions of others still cannot.
Lauren Elkin’s most recent book is No 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism