Winner of the 2021 Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, writer-director Audrey Diwan’s unflinching and suspense-ridden Happening follows its young female protagonist, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a helpless middle-class college student who desperately tries to seek an illegal abortion in order to continue her studies in 1960s France.
The immersive work is likely to draw comparisons to other notable films about women seeking abortions under restrictive circumstances, such as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. But the existence of these relatively recent, similarly-themed films lessens neither the urgency nor the vitality of Diwan’s soaring entry into the cinematic oeuvre centered on reproductive rights. Happening opens in the U.S. on Friday, just days after a leaked draft opinion revealed that the Supreme Court is reportedly considering overturning the revolutionary abortion rights ruling Roe v. Wade.
Adapted from the French writer Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel, Happening isn’t just a timely and realistic look at the consequences of making abortion illegal—it is also a story about sexual freedom. Below, Diwan speaks with TIME about her experience of making a period film with current themes, her artistic process, and the type of conversation she hopes to spark with Happening.
How did you first get acquainted with author Annie Ernaux’s work and this novel?
I got an abortion myself and wanted to read on the topic. A friend advised me to read Happening. When I read the book, I was struck by my lack of knowledge. The main difference between medicalized and illegal abortion is that illegal abortion is all random. Is this person going to turn you to the police or help you? Are you going to end up in jail, in a hospital? It’s more than suspense. It’s vital.
I kept thinking about the way the young girl [in the book] talks about her sexual desire and pleasure. I understand that. She also talks about intellectual desire. I wanted to make a movie talking about freedom. And it also involved illegal abortion. I was not like, “I’m going to do a political manifesto.” What is political in my work is this relationship to freedom.
There is still some cultural judgment around freedom and desire, and a tendency in storytelling to limit female desire to feelings of love. Happening is radical in that regard.
I think desire is beautiful. I didn’t want the movie only to be about pain. There is light. There is desire. All those girls try to protect [their right to feel desire] to be free one day [of] this social shame. If you are sexually free, society won’t accept that. And the way the society punishes this freedom is [banning] abortion. So you are not free to do whatever you want with your body.
While this is a period piece, the themes are not of the past. Women still face harsh, tightening laws both around the world and in the U.S. that limit access to abortion.
I wanted to avoid [being a] period piece. Because what remains [the same] today is silence. It’s stunning. Those stories are supposed to stay silent. There is social shame. Boys and men are raised thinking, that’s not our story. And women are raised thinking, we should not talk about it.
So of course I wanted to make a story that can be seen as a nowadays story, because somewhere in the world, it’s always true. When I started writing it, I could have never ever imagined that it would be accurate in the United States.
What does it mean to you personally to be in the U.S. with this movie, considering the tightening abortion laws?
I hope that [everyone] can find a way to break silence, to really talk about the matter and the topic. Nobody ever mentioned to me what an illegal abortion [really looks like]. In other countries, like Italy and even in France, some people who were against abortion came to see my movie and we managed to have a discussion after. And that matters.
Your film is intensely immersive; you favor long takes and don’t interrupt action very often. The central abortion scene, for instance, is all one take. That seemed especially challenging artistically.
I don’t want any ideas to be too shortly told. If I ask Anamaria to show that she’s in pain, everybody’s going to get it really quickly. But that’s theoretical. So if my sequence is long, you start feeling what she feels and it becomes provocative.
You also have a very matter-of-fact approach, especially when showing nudity. You’re not romanticizing her body, but instead showing us her vulnerability.
We were trying to be her, not watch her. She’s this young girl who partly discovers her body at the exact same time that she needs to hurt it.
How did you help Anamaria Vartolomei in preparing for this part, to get her in this headspace?
We spent lots of time before the shooting, talking about the meaning. We also worked on silence and inner monologue. Whenever she’s silent, she has an obsessive idea in mind that you see on her face she’s [yearning] to express.
I am intrigued by your approach to the men of this story: the professors, the doctors, the romantic interests. You look at them as products of their time instead of blatantly villainizing them.
I don’t judge my characters. They were raised not knowing anything about it. There aren’t many heroes in our society who can actually accept the idea that if they get caught, they’re going to end up in jail. It’s not that easy to judge. We have to think carefully about it. Would we be heroes [in that situation]?
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