Out of Time:
An Interview with Audrey Diwan (Happening)
By Caitlin Quinlan

You would be forgiven for not realizing that director Audrey Diwan’s second feature, Happening, is a period piece. Bar a few music and costume choices, the film doesn’t go out of its way to suggest the 1960s era in which it is set, a time when abortion was illegal in France. It’s a choice that foregrounds reproductive rights as a vital, contemporary issue, refusing to allow it to be confined to a forgotten history. And how could it, when the procedure still remains banned in 26 countries and a further 37 prohibit it unless deemed necessary to save a pregnant person’s life? Meanwhile, in the U.S., a near-total ban on abortion took effect in Texas last year; mere weeks ago, Oklahoma lawmakers passed a similar bill; and, as of this writing, the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

This sense of urgency propels Happening, which follows university student Anne as she seeks the termination of an accidental pregnancy. (The character is a depiction of the writer Annie Ernaux, whose documentation of her own illegal abortion in her book of the same name inspired the film.) Tension rises as weeks pass, appearing as on-screen title cards. Lead actor Anamaria Vartolomei’s performance is as unflinching and determined as the film’s treatment of her predicament; she will find a way to have an abortion by any means necessary, even if it threatens her life. Surrounded by classmates who shy away from Anne’s boldness even as they fear the laws that forbid her aim, and doctors who could have her imprisoned if they choose to turn her in, she embarks on a journey that is desperately lonely and uncertain. Diwan takes as a given Anne’s right to freedom—the freedom to choose, to continue her studies and start her career, to dance in a bar with a boy if she feels like it. Throughout the film, under the dappled sunlight of her French town, Anne glows with the possibilities of life stretching out before her and finds the strength to reach for them.

Reverse Shot: I wanted to start by getting a sense of the importance of Annie Ernaux’s writing to you and your desire to adapt this book?

Audrey Diwan: She’s very important to me. I come from a literature background, and I have always read her books, but I didn’t know about Happening until after having an abortion myself. I wanted to read on the topic to think about this “event,” and I couldn't find any texts that helped me until a friend advised me to read that book. When I met Annie Ernaux, she told me that out of all her books, this was the only one that journalists wouldn’t talk or write about. It was written at the beginning of 2000, and we still didn’t want to hear about illegal abortion. I wasn’t looking for a book to adapt—I was reading it for personal reasons—but what I kept in mind was the huge difference in my mind between illegal abortion and medicalized abortion. Medicalized abortion has some kind of routine; you more or less know what’s going to happen. When you go through an illegal abortion, everything is random. I didn't know the exact reality of that process before I read the book, and the idea of that unbearable suspense stayed in my mind. It was like reading a very intimate thriller. Then, as I love Annie Ernaux, what I had in mind was the character, the personality of this young woman. I never thought “I’m going to make a movie about illegal abortion”; I was thinking about the character in many ways. She has sexual desires, and she talks about it even in 1963. She has intellectual desire, too, and she’s going from one social class, the working class, to the more bourgeois university. Everything was about a search for freedom in many different ways.

RS: I’m really interested in the concept of “happening” as something that’s both active and passive. Ernaux wanted to give this event meaning through the act of writing, making it truly “happen,” and at the same time the character of Anne is at the mercy of the laws, the social rules, and ultimately the pregnancy that has “happened” to her. Something small that struck me in the film was the moment where the girls are studying verb conjugations, and the verb they are conjugating is “to act.”

AD: Actually, I did that on purpose, and no one has picked up on it yet. First, I asked, “What's happening?” I put myself in this young mindset, and my whole idea of the movie was to try not to watch her, but to be her. So, I’m this 22-year-old girl, and I don’t know what's happening because I have no way to learn about my body. Of course, you don’t have the internet, there are not many books, and social attitudes are all about silence. It’s something you’re not supposed to talk about, even more so if you actually want to get an abortion. What’s happening is a mystery. And in the book, Ernaux writes, “[Time] became a shapeless entity growing inside me which had to be destroyed at all costs.” It’s kind of a horror movie sentence, you know. So, “what's happening?” was the question I had in mind all the time, because if you decide to go a certain way, you’re going towards the unknown. It’s still related to this random idea because you never know who’s going to be behind the door. Even shooting the movie, I used the 1.37:1 aspect ratio because it’s a very narrow frame. One of the things we did with this frame was that at the beginning, we framed Anne in the middle of the other students, but the more she goes to the unknown, the more I asked the DP to film her from behind so we can be her when she opens the doors, not knowing who’s going to be on the other side. Is it someone who’s going to help you or turn you in to the police?

RS: I think this is also really interesting in relation to the film’s themes of pleasure and sex positivity. There is this sense for Anne and her friends that they want experiences, they want things to “happen” to them.

AD: I think sex can be beautiful, but for it to be beautiful we have to build this idea. Coming of age is always a kind of shock—something is happening and then it changes you. We carefully built the idea of sex on screen. At the beginning, they're just talking about it; then you have an image in a book; then a girl imitates masturbation until she really masturbates, and then at the end, Anne is ready to find her own pleasure, to accept the idea that she wants pleasure and that’s okay. So, it was like a conquest, but in a very light, happy way. In this particular book, Ernaux doesn’t talk much about sex, but if you talk about abortion, you must also talk about sex. I asked Annie if I was allowed to bring my own experience to the film, so the girl masturbating on the cushion was based on a friend of mine who did that when I was a girl and I probably was doing the same face as Anamaria in the movie. It was something I’d never seen before.

RS: I wanted to ask about the film’s aesthetic. There is something quite idyllic about the warm sunlight and the natural landscape in the first half of the film, and it feels in keeping with an idea explored by Ernaux, who writes about seeing an old photograph of herself in which she is “suntanned, smiling, mischievous.” She adds, “Every time I look at it, I feel it was the very last picture of me as a young girl, caught up in the invisible yet pervasive web of seductiveness.”

AD: It gives me goosebumps because I clearly remember that. When I read the book, I thought, what if I had a camera in the ’60s? There is sunshine and they have desire, exactly the way young people have desires when there is sun and you are 20 years old. It’s also a very interesting political moment in France’s history because it was very close to the sexual revolution in ’68, but the law was still very scary. Everybody was scared. They really just didn’t know what to do for a girl in this situation. But how did it feel to be able to go dancing? They were the first generation to find places to go dancing together. So, in the film you can feel them sweating, their skin, they are very close to each other, but they are not allowed to kiss or touch each other. There is a great tension here. And what about desire at that time? For me, the sun was this—you’re overwhelmed, and you're happy to go dancing, and of course you have desire, but you’ve been told that you’re a woman and you shouldn’t allow yourself. But she’s this young progressive woman, and she wants to be free.

RS: There’s a clear change in the film’s look as she approaches the abortion and things become much more threatening.

AD: The more we went into the unknown, the more I worked on contrasts. It’s very light outside, but inside it’s very dark. We closed the curtains; we don’t want anybody to know what’s happening there. So yes, the contrast is very important to me, because it’s like going from a very innocent age to learning about life the hardest way. You go to the darkness, and then one day you have the light again. I really wanted Anne to work towards her freedom.

RS: There is a pointed lack of temporal signifiers in the film to mark this story out as being set in the past. Why was it so important to not pin this film down as a period drama?

AD: I have many reasons. The first is that, to me, period pieces always come with some kind of nostalgia. I have no nostalgia for that period of time. I am politically involved in what I create, and I wanted to go to what’s essential to me—not the setup, but the body. I love to tell stories through the body, I think it’s very interesting. When I started making the movie, it was very hard to find the money. My producers are fighters. But we met a lot of people who asked us, “But why do you want to make a movie about illegal abortion now?” First of all, they see the film as being about illegal abortion and nothing else. I said, “I hope that you’re going to tell the same thing to the next filmmaker who wants to make a movie about the Second World War.”

I realized that it was even more interesting because people don’t expect us to talk about it. There is a strong relationship between this topic and silence, and silence is the best weapon for people who don’t want the world to change, people who want the world to go backwards. I had in mind that, of course, in France, we have the law, but there are so many countries where abortion is still illegal, where women are not free to have sex the way they want to. So, to me, it was important to make a movie that alighted on an idea, a very sad idea: that it is always the same story throughout the ages. Through the writing process, the world was still changing. Poland changed its laws, and then on my way to Venice, I heard about what’s happening in the U.S, what’s happening in Texas. Art is also a wakeup call. Think carefully, do you want girls to go back to that way? Do we agree that we should accept that level of suffering? It’s my only question.