Set in France in the year 1963, Happening tells the story of Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a young student from a working class family balancing her job, social life, and ambitions with the day-to-day responsibilities of her studies. Upon discovering of her unplanned pregnancy, Anne faces a difficult dilemma in finding the time, resources, and aid necessary to go through a safe abortion. With little time, money, or alternatives available to her, she embarks on a dangerous journey to safely terminate the pregnancy.
Directed by Audrey Diwan, Happening received a strong ovation in its premiere at the 2021Venice Film Festival, catapulting the film to international recognition. The film sat out a crowded corridor of specialty titles during last year’s awards season, its US distributor IFC Films instead opting for a staggered theatrical rollout in May. The timing of that US release coincided with the Supreme Court’s vote to overturn the legal protections from its landmark Roe v Wade ruling, giving the film’s subject matter a timely resonance in its US release. Boxoffice Pro spoke with Diwan about the film’s production in France and release in the United States.
Happening is based on a book that was released in the year 2000. What was your first interaction with the book and how did this project come to you?
I read the book without the intention of making a movie. I’ve been reading Annie Ernaux’s books forever, but I didn’t know this one. I discovered it just after having an abortion myself. A friend advised me to read it because I wanted to learn more about the topic. I initially found it strange that I had never heard of that book from Ernaux; when I met her, she told me it was the only one that didn’t get any media attention. Even in [the year] 2000, nobody wanted to hear about it.
When I read the book, I was first trapped between the huge difference between medicalized and illegal abortion. Medicalized abortion is always related to some kind of routine, whereas in the illegal abortion route, everything is random. Who you meet, if this person is going to help you or turn you into the police, if you’ll end up in jail, die, or survive. There is this huge, strong, unbearable suspense in the book. I had the feeling that I was reading an intimate thriller. It stayed in mind until the day I wanted to write about these girls, about Annie Ernaux.
What was it about the book that made you believe it could be turned into a successful film adaptation?
When she wrote, Ernaux always tried to reach the exact memory she had at the time. When I decided to make the movie, I told her that I wanted to make it a physical experience. I didn’t want the audience to simply look at that girl, but to instead experience and reach her exact feelings at any given moment.My challenge was to tell this story, cinematically speaking, beyond gender and age—asking viewers to identify with this girl. At the beginning, I was very attached to the character because she’s young. She’s just trying to reach her own freedom. She has sexual desires that are just as strong as her intellectual desires. She wants to do something with her life. She comes from the working class, and she’s going to a more bourgeois university, and everything about her is trying to reach a new level of freedom.
It’s always difficult to get money to get a film made. It’s even more difficult when you have a period piece based on a book that didn’t receive much attention when it was published twenty years ago. And even more difficult when it’s based on a topic like abortion.
–and don’t forget to add that my cast was made up by unknown actors! I’m lucky because my producers never told me how difficult it would be, I didn’t realize it at the time. In France we have a unique [financing] system, because you have the option of being partially financed by public funds. If you go down that route, you need to keep in mind that they can’t help many movies each year. I knew that we could make the movie, but only if I could persuade people of what I had in mind. When I read the book, I had no idea what getting an illegal abortion entailed. I grew up with the word, but I had no idea of what it was exactly. We made the decision to keep the viewer close to the entire process of what exactly an illegal abortion looks like, how difficult it is for the woman, to show the actual pain involved when there isn’t a safe alternative to this procedure. I never tried to be shocking. I don’t think provocation is the best way to tell stories. But the reality of this is shocking. As a writer, Annie Ernaux is brave in her honesty. She tells the truth without looking away. So I couldn’t imagine making the movie that would betray the book that way.
The film received a great reception when it premiered in Venice, and it is now being released in the United States in a time when this story is very relevant. How have those contexts informed the film’s reception from audiences?
I wrote the movie knowing that it was a contemporary story in many countries of the world. I would have never imagined that this would be a current problem in the United States. We didn’t really show the movie before going to Venice, so I didn’t know how people would react to it. I was surprised because at the end of the screening, everybody was silent for a few seconds. I was thinking “Okay, wow, they didn’t make the journey. We’re done here.” And then after a few seconds, they started applauding and I just realized that they needed a bit of time to get out of the movie.
A lot of men came up to me after the film, men were the first to come to me and tell me their reactions. I was so happy to realize that we were able to tell this story beyond gender. We’ve also shown the movie to people who are against abortion. It was a very interesting experience because we managed to have a real conversation about it. I don’t think it’s interesting to have a movie that only plays to one side of the audience. What matters is that we get to talk about [abortion]. I don’t want to tell people what to think, but I want everyone to ask themselves: as a human being, how much can I accept the pain these women go through in illegal abortions? Because we all know that every time abortion is banned somewhere, women are still doing it, just in an unsafe manner.