Audrey Diwan’s Happening Is a Sobering Reminder of the World Before Roe v. Wade

Happening, a new French-language film from director Audrey Diwan based on the autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, tells the true story of a college-aged woman’s trials and tribulations as she seeks an illegal abortion in 1963 France.

The film arrives in theaters Friday, and became soberingly relevant with the news that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision protecting American women’s right to abortion. France legalized abortion in 1975.

“It could be, as we heard, in 26 states,” Diwan told MovieMaker, referring to the news that 26 U.S. states could soon outlaw abortion. “Sadly it comes to the present. It’s always the same narrative.”

Happening follows Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) who desperately wants the chance to continue her education and become a writer. The film demonstrates that outlawing abortions doesn’t stop them from happening — it simply forces women to seek out less safe ways to get them. Botched abortions in countries where the procedure is illegal account for 8 to 11 percent of all maternal deaths — 30,000 a year — according to The Atlantic.

While adapting Happening — which won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival — Diwan only strayed from Ernaux’s novel in one major way: She removed a part of the novel in which a much older Ernaux looks back on the events of her youth as an older woman. Diwan instead chose to have the whole film take place in 1963 as if it was the present day.

“If I had her looking back in time, I would have set the story in the past, and what I wanted to do is to actually [point out] what is still the same today,” Audrey Diwan told MovieMaker.

Vartolomei, who stars as Anne in the film, says she jumped at the chance to tell such a timely and impactful story on screen.

“Regarding that topic, the past is the present,” Vartolomei told MovieMaker. “When I first read the book, I had no idea about the process of illegal abortion. I felt very angry [about] my lack of knowledge towards a subject that is so taboo when shrouded in silence, so I like the fact that, actually, this will show you what really happens.”

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“It was very liberating for me,” she added. “I felt more confident about my work, about things that I’m able to do that I wasn’t aware of. As a woman, I just feel more free.”

Audrey Diwan says she chose to adapt Ernaux’s story in Happening because of the way she felt when she first read the book.

“I read a lot of Annie Ernaux’s books before, but I didn’t know this one. I discovered this one after having an abortion myself. I wanted to read about the topic, not in order to make a movie at all. And I was very deeply impacted by the fact that I discovered I had no idea of the real process of illegal abortion,” Diwan said.

“The main difference, to me, between medicalized and illegal is that medicalized abortion goes through some kind of a routine. Things can always happen, but still. Whereas illegal [abortion] is all about random. Who is she going to meet? Is that person going to help turn her over to the police? Is she going to end up in jail? Dying?” she added.

“I kept that in mind, but what really got me into the story was the character, because I really like the way she fights for her own freedom. She clearly talks about her sexual desire, not even mentioning feelings — she has desires, she wants pleasure… I wanted her to find her own way to go to this very light future.”

Happening arrives in theaters Friday and on-demand on June 21.

Main Image: Anamaria Vartolomei as Anne in Happening, directed by Audrey Diwan, courtesy of IFC Films

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