by Helen Barlow

When Audrey Diwan’s second feature Happening won the Golden Lion in Venice, it came a surprise. Not because it was an undeserving winner but because many critics had not seen the film when they had, of course, watched the other award winners, The Power of the Dog, for which Jane Campion won best director and The Lost Daughter for which Maggie Gyllenhaal won the screenwriting award.

Happening went on to win for best picture and best actress (Anamaria Vartolomei) in the Lumieres, the French version of the Golden Globes, though was outgunned by Lost Illusions in the Cesars, the French Oscars, with Vartolomei winning for most promising actress. As for the US Academy Awards, the French entry was the Cannes winner Titane though Happening should make a splash when it releases in the US in May as it comes close to the new potentially restrictive Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights.

In our Paris interview, Diwan stresses that Happening is much more than a film about abortion but the story of a young woman’s self-determination and relates a lot to her own personal experience. Together with Marcia Romano, Diwan adapted Annie Ernaux’s semi-autobiographical novel which is set in 1963 France. It follows Vartolomei’s Anne, a bright young student who falls pregnant and attempts to procure an illegal abortion. She had dreamt of escaping the constraints of her social background via her studies and has no time to raise a child.

You weren’t able to go to Sundance for your film’s special screening this year because of the pandemic and it also got in the way of filming.

Yes, the shooting was postponed for two months because of the pandemic. I was disappointed at first, but it offered me some time to talk to Anamaria. We exchanged movie references. I told her she should see Agnes Varda’s One Hundred and One Nights of Simon Cinema or Rosetta from the Dardennes and she talked about Girl from Lukas Dhont. We had the time to think and create and build the character together. So that was really helpful and allowed us to bond.

Was it a surprise that Julia Ducournau’s Titane and not Happening became the French nomination for the Oscars?

I knew it would be Julia’s movie or mine. Actually, we’re friends, so I knew that I’d be happy for her or for me. I had a feeling the battle would be hard because there are so many movies that I love in that competition. I’m a huge fan of Drive My Car. I would have loved to have made that journey, but I don’t expect prizes. I protect myself in that way so I’m never really disappointed. My main concern was that we really need to show this movie at this special time in the United States. So, I was disappointed for that reason.

Why did you choose to make this film? Did you read Annie Ernaux’s novel?

I read the novel after having an abortion because I wanted to read about the topic. I knew a lot of her books, but not Happening (L’evenement), and a friend told me to read it. I realised the huge gap between what I went through with a medical abortion and a clandestine one and I also realised that I had no idea of what that really was. I became angry imagining what women had to go through. When I decided to make the movie, I tried to write Annie Ernaux’s truth, to make people feel what it is to be that girl.

Have you changed her novel for the movie?

The action is set in 1963, but she also retraces her memories. I didn’t want that because I wanted to make the ‘60s some kind of eternal presence. You know it’s the ‘60s, but the feeling is that it could be happening now. When I was reading the book, I was thinking what would it be like to have a cam recorder in the ‘60s? What would I see? How would it look? So, in my mind I was following that young girl as if I had a cam recorder. That was the starting point.

Was it hard to get the rights to the book?

No. We showed my first movie [Losing It, 2019] to Annie, then we talked together for a while, and I explained exactly what I wanted to do. I really respect writing and I didn’t want the movie to be a betrayal of her writing and she knew it. It happened very fast because she knew I would respect the book.

Your first film was about addiction. You like these tough topics?

Yes. Tough and actually related to the body and secrets somehow. I must talk about it with my shrink, because it’s all about physical experience, and the body as a place of secrets. So, one film after another you discover something about yourself, about your own obsessions. I’m working on something now which is physical in a very different way. I love movies that are not very psychological but concrete. You know, the body telling a story.

Anamaria Vartolomei and Audrey Diwan with their awards at Venice. Photo by Coadiac Guirec / Pierre Perusseau / Bestimage

How did you find Anamaria?

I asked my casting director to find a girl who had technical skills and who wasn’t afraid of the camera, because it’s very hard when you always have the cinematographer close as we had here. Anamaria has a subtle way of acting that I love. She doesn’t need to do lots of things to make you feel, which is very important because we’re so close to her face most of the time. She also has a strong relationship with words. The character is supposed to be a writer someday and I could talk about literature with Anamaria.

It was interesting because when she arrived at the casting, she was not trying to please me at all. She was asking questions like why I thought the nudity was necessary. I told her I was not trying to sexualise her body.

Did having an abortion have a strong effect on you?

It’s about making choices. It’s the kind of choice that changes your life forever. You embody the idea of the choice because you don’t know. My situation was very close to Annie’s. The first time I had to get an abortion I was very young too and I wanted to continue with my studies.

The Anne character comes from a working class background and that’s part of the story as it shows how the working classes have less access to abortions.

I really don’t have the feeling that I’ve made a movie only about abortion. To me what matters is the general idea of freedom, to feel free to have sexual desire and to go from one social class to another. How do you find your place in society when you come from the working class and are the first in your family to go off to study? The book asks lots of questions about that non-traditional journey. To me, it’s also interesting because if you’re rich, you will find a way to take the ferry and go to England to have an abortion, and probably won’t die. But if you are poor, you’ve got a far greater chance. There are very important social dimensions to the story that I had in mind.

Were you from the working or middle class?

My grandparents were really, really poor, but my father did very well. So, I grew up in between two radically different social classes and I could never say which class I belonged to. I really understand what it is to be in between.

Happening is in cinemas April 14, 2022


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