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A Story Beyond Gender: Audrey Diwan and Anamaria Vartolomei on Happening

If you’ve been paying attention, then “Happening” was always a timely film. Director Audrey Diwan makes this point throughout our interview about her Golden Lion-winning film, which comes to American theaters at a critical moment for abortion rights. “Happening” opened in France last fall, where it inspired women—including Diwan herself—to push back against social stigma by sharing their own abortion stories. Now it arrives in the U.S. the same week that a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion revealed that the court has voted to overturn Roe V. Wade, putting millions of Americans’ right to bodily autonomy and determining the course of their own lives in jeopardy. 

Based on Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical 2001 novel, “Happening” is set in 1963, 12 years before abortion was legalized in France. Anamaria Vartolomei stars as Anne, a student at a small provincial college with a then-unspeakable secret: She’s pregnant. Afraid to tell anyone about her dilemma, she takes desperate action to end the pregnancy so she can stay in school and fulfill her dream of becoming a writer. “Happening” is a film that’s both plainspoken and richly textured—Diwan conveys Anne’s inner life in intimate detail, a sensitivity that contrasts with the unblinking realism of the film’s medical scenes. 

Diwan and Vartolomei discussed this balance, as well as the challenge of meeting this moment in history, in a joint interview, which took place before the Supreme Court opinion was made public.

When did you first encounter Annie Ernaux’s novel?

AUDREY DIWAN: A very long time ago. I used to be a publisher, so I come from literature, not cinema. But the question is interesting because I've been reading for ages, but I didn't know about “Happening.” And it turned out not to be random, because I read the book right after having an abortion myself. 

I just wanted to read about the topic, and a friend and mine advised me to read this book. I'd never heard about it before. And when I talked for the first time with Annie Ernaux, she told me that of all her books, it was the one that got the least attention from journalists. So even in the beginning of the 2000s, we didn't really want to hear about that story.

In the film, there's a real culture of silence around abortion and sex. How do you approach that, as a director and in performance as an actor?

ANAMARIA VARTOLOMEI: For the silent scenes, we worked a lot on interior monologues. Audrey and I [came up with] sentences, words that I repeated to myself while filming so you can feel the emergency and the alertness in [Anne’s] look. 

For example, at the beginning of the movie when she's at the party, she wants to be seen. She wants to feel desire. She wants to flirt. And that slowly becomes a look that [shows] she's avoiding something. She's escaping something. She's afraid of being caught. Everything becomes more interior the further she goes [into the abortion underground], and the more paranoid she gets. We worked a lot on that. We also worked on breathing and we worked on her posture, how her body can already tell [the audience] that something more is going on. 

AD: When I read the book, I had a feeling that it was a very intimate thriller. It was a book that I couldn't stop reading. So I wanted the movie to be that way. It's silent, but you felt connected to [Anne]. And so you were really jumping into the story from the beginning to the end.

So it was really about depicting the contrast between the exterior of, “we're not talking about this. Everything is fine,” and the internal panic?

AD: Yeah. And it’s also about how all the other students have no urgency. So whenever we know what [Anne is] going through, we feel her urgency because the world around her is slow. And I think this contrast is very interesting [in terms of] telling a story, but also talking about the silence. In the book, the word “abortion” is never mentioned, because the silence is part of the social shame. And this social shame is a great weapon to be sure that things are never going to change.

So we were raised not saying those words as women. And men were raised not thinking that this matters [to them], you know?  I was trying not to judge any of my characters while writing, but just trying to understand the culture and the mentality of the society. 

In contrast to that, there are two very harrowing sequences in this film. As opposed to the subtleties of silence, there are these long shots where we don't look away. Why did you choose to film it that way?

AD: First of all, I always refer to the book, which I love. Annie Ernaux never looks away. Then my idea was to try to be that girl. I did the sequence in a way that I could actually project myself into being that young girl. I asked myself, what would I look at [in that moment]? What would I not want to look at, but have a glimpse of because I couldn’t help myself? But I'd also be in my inner world, trying to think. The general idea of the movie was that I didn't want to make a moral movie. I wanted to make a movie that asked the question, “what if we were this girl?”

And in terms of performance, Anamaria, there's one sequence where the camera is on your face for a very long period of time. How do you prepare for that kind of scene? What were you thinking about?

AV: We prepared by talking, but we didn't rehearse those scenes, I think because Audrey didn't want to mechanize them. There’s really a sort of magic between “action” and “cut.” We can rehearse, but it won't be even 1% of what will happen between us on set. I just had to abandon myself. It's not a long dialogue scene, so it's not something that you can analyze or scrutinize that much. It's about feelings. So you have to let yourself go and trust your director and her vision and her gaze. She guided me, and she guided my breath, and we succeeded in these scenes together, just trying to live as the character, and forget myself.

AD: Sometimes we even worked as if we were mirrors. For instance, when she's in pain in one specific sequence, I made a mistake because I thought—and it's a very basic idea—“you are in pain, you suffer, you shout”. We tried this, and it wasn’t working. We could feel that it was not right. So we were sitting in front of each other and I told Anamaria, “try to breathe as if you are about to faint.” I was doing it. and she was doing it also. So I could see what she was doing, but she could also see what I was doing. And we go to this place where we both found ...

AV: That it was right.

AD: That it was the right way to do it.

Did you use this technique a lot over the course of filming? 

AD: No, just the climax. You have to trust your actress. You have to hope that the miracle of acting is going to happen. When you accept this risk, that's how it happens. 

Obviously a film takes many years to complete. And there really is no time when abortion is not under debate. But from where I am in the US, it feels as though the conflict is escalating very quickly. How does it feel to be releasing this movie during this time? 

AD: You’re right. Unfortunately, it's always accurate to talk about those things. And I want to say something else—it's not only about illegal abortion. We're here to think about freedom in general. That's what actually interests me about the book: It’s a girl thinking about her own sexual desires—not even feelings—as well as her own intellectual desires. [Anne] goes from a working class background to university. She wants to be a writer. She’s trying to be free in every way. That's what I love about the character.

When I started writing “Happening” and we were trying to get financing for the movie, a lot of people in France told me, “why do you want to make a movie about illegal abortion? You already have the law [legalizing it].” And I thought, “oh my God, I hope you're going to say the same thing to the next director that comes and says, ‘I'm going to make a World War II movie.’” Because the war is over, too! We had to fight to make this movie happen, because everybody said, “it's in the past.” But it's not the past. 

We were on our way to Venice when we heard about the [new laws in the] United States. And I would've never believed that this movie would be accurate in your country. Unfortunately, now everybody says it's “timely.” I think that we should never make movies in order to be timely, but when you do something very sincere and intimate, it can actually meet the moment. And so we are able to open the discussion again.

AV: When I first read the book, I had no idea about the process, of what an illegal abortion really means. And I felt very angry about my lack of knowledge and my ignorance on that topic, because it's so taboo. There’s so much silence that even a girl my age has no idea of what's really going on. 

So I was very proud to be part of this movie because I feel like we benefit from [turning] the light on. When you're in the spotlight, you have to do movies with topics that matter. I'm very happy to be part of this movie, especially because it shows in a very real way what really happens. And I say “happens” because it's still going on nowadays. And this is the most triggering thing, because some people ask me, “how did you prepare to play a girl that lives in the ‘60s?” And it's not about the past. It's something that's actually happening [now]. 

AD: I would like to that if we have to go through this debate again, whether we should allow women to have abortions or not, we have to know exactly what illegal abortion is. I wasn't trying to tell people what I think about the issue. We tried to picture the real moment, the reality she's going through. I think it helps because some people are against abortion, but they don't know what it is to go through this journey. And actually some people who are against abortion came to see the movie. And it was really interesting because we met to discuss it in a very proper way and not just to be against each other.

That's one thing that I was struck by in this movie. It's a story about this woman and her life. This is something that happens to her, but it doesn’t define her. She goes on to do other things.

AD: I wanted to portray that honestly, once again, not judging any of the characters—except maybe for one doctor. We all agree on him. He's a liar. But anyway, I wanted everybody to feel free to have their own questions in mind. I always expected that the audience would consist of both women and men. And at the end of the Venice screening—because before Venice, we had never shown the movie, and I had no idea how people would react—lots of men came to me and said, “Oh my God, I felt pain in my belly. It was like I was a woman for an hour and a half.” People of every gender can identify with the character, because the story was written beyond gender. It's what I like about art and movies, that we are able to create this experience of empathy. 

Were there any details that you put into the film to give it that more intimate, autobiographical feel?

AD: I involved myself in the story in a very intimate way. I wanted to tell a story about this girl and her freedom, as I said. So I needed to portray her sexual life. And there’s not much sex in that book. Annie Erneaux talks a lot about it in other books, but in this one, there was not much there. 

Marcia Romano, my co-writer, and I really wanted to go step by step. The sexual part of the story appears step by step. At first, the girls just talk about it, whispering in their room. Then there is an image in a book, and then there is a girl mimicking masturbation until she really masturbates. Then the character is ready to [explore her] own pleasure. And I really wanted that sequence to be beautiful, and for us to love this moment for her. The masturbation scene came from my own experience—another girl showed me this when I was a young girl. She told me things that I didn't know, because we were never supposed to talk about it. 

Silence is everywhere. It's not only about abortion, it's also about pleasure and what girls want in life. So yes, you have to put some of your own experience [in the film]. I asked Annie Ernaux about it, and she said, “Yes, I think it's right.”

In terms of performance, Anamaria, were there any details that you added to give it more of a personal feel?

AV: I think the character gave me much more than I did her. She’s just such a confident and brave and determined woman that I tried to steal that from her, and I still keep these things with me. As I often say to Audrey, I started this movie as a young lady and I finished it as a woman. I grew up so much during the shoot, thanks to her. As she says, it’s a quest, and a pursuit of freedom. So I think that at the end of the movie, I also felt free in a way, because working together in the way she directed me, she made me feel more confident about my work and about what I'm able to do. I grew up so much and I felt way more confident after [making this film].

AD: At the end of the movie, Anne says, “I'm going to be a writer.” [Turns to Anamaria] And now you say it out loud: ”I'm going to be an actress.” So there was an intimate relationship between Anne’s journey and Anamaria’s journey.

What would you say to people who say, “This is in the past. Abortion is legal. We don't need to worry about illegal abortion anymore?”

AD: Yesterday was election day in [France]. We're this close to having the extreme right in charge. And I know what Biden has said in the past about abortion. So nobody should think it can’t change, because we've seen the law changing in so many countries. 

That's the reason why we didn't want to make this film a “period piece.” I carefully talked with my crew about how it should be—not anachronistic, but the audience should have the feeling that it's in the past and nowadays at the same time. When you set a story in the past, when you do a true period piece, it always comes with some kind of nostalgia attached. And I have no nostalgia for that period of time, especially when we’re talking about women’s rights.

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