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The story of Happening, an ‘intimate’ abortion thriller set in 1960s France

We talk to director Audrey Diwan about her nail-biting drama, which won Venice Film Festival’s top prize last year

The A-word is never uttered in Audrey Diwan’s Happening. It’s 1963, in France, though you wouldn’t immediately guess it. A gang of girls swap outfits, debate the naughtiest skirt length they can get away with, and then head to a party to dance with boys. Well, dance alongside boys. Immediately, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) rejects a fellow male student’s advances because the other girls are watching – no, judging – her. “You can feel the desire,” Diwan explains. “There’s sexual tension in the air. But if you go against the law, you can end up in jail. You can die.”

As it isn’t 1975 yet, abortion is still illegal in France, and Anne’s friend, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), is petrified of being impregnated by the wrong guy. When Anne refers hypothetically to a “procedure”, Brigitte is aghast, shooting back, “Don’t even say it.” These conversational snippets were adapted by Diwan, 42, a French-Lebanese auteur, from Annie Ernaux’s 2000 memoir of the same name. “Annie told me silence is very important because it’s one of the government’s main weapons,” Diwan says. “If you have a discussion, things are going to change. I want to believe in that idea.”

Since its premiere, Happening has loudly kept the subject matter in the spotlight. At Venice, the nail-biting abortion drama won the top prize, the Golden Lion, and Diwan speaks to me in Cafe Royal Hotel the day after the BAFTAs, where she was nominated for Best Director. Diwan had previously helmed 2019’s Losing It. Otherwise, her IMDb lists numerous screenplay-only credits for thrillers, many of them directed by Cédric Jimenez. I ask if that’s why Happening is so nerve-wracking – the thriller genre is in her DNA?

“It’s a bit more complicated than that because Cédric and I were together for 10 years,” she says, laughing. “It was his taste.” But surely Happening counts as a thriller? “It’s an intimate thriller. I’m obsessed with tension. I was born and raised with the idea of the Lebanese War – my father is Lebanese, and we were supposed to live in Lebanon. When my mother was pregnant, bullets were coming through the windows. They ran away to France. I would always remember, as a kid, them talking about living in that tension, and that probably stayed in my subconscious.”

Throughout Happening, Anne is on tenterhooks. Secretly pregnant from a one-night stand, the student has no one to turn to, not even her friends. Doctors are so afraid of imprisonment, they refuse to help her; when one medical professional slips her some drugs, she later learns they’re designed to strengthen her embryo. To get an abortion, Anne thus resorts to a deadly mission that involves covert conversations, meeting strangers after dark, and other tasks that sound like a spy film – except it really happened to Ernaux.

“When I had an abortion, I wanted to read about it,” Diwan says. “A friend advised me to read Annie’s book. If I used my own experience, it’s to confront what makes an illegal abortion like an intense thriller. With a medicalised abortion, you go through a routine. But when it’s illegal, it’s random who you meet: are they going to help you, or turn you into the police? Are they going to do the abortion correctly, or are you going to die?”

Diwan describes to me the reaction from younger viewers. So far, they’re stunned by how complicated an illegal abortion was in 1963. “It’s also interesting to talk to them about the other topic of the movie: what does it mean to feel sexual desire, and to not be allowed to have sex?” I note that while Brigitte won’t say the word “abortion”, she’s comfortable masturbating with a pillow in front of Annie. “That scene’s not in the book, it comes from my memories,” Diwan points out. “A friend showed that to me with a pillow. I wanted to talk about this illegal abortion, but freedom in general – intellectual freedom, going from one social class to another, and also sexual feelings.”

Abortion, of course, is still illegal in many countries, and in the past two years it’s been effectively outlawed in Poland and Texas. Diwan’s drama thus warns of a complacency that can set in if the subject is ignored. So much so, she sought to shoot Happening like a modern movie, and not colour grade it like a bright 1960s Godard romcom. “It’s 1963 in France but it’s a reality for a lot of women nowadays,” Diwan explains. “I wanted to do the opposite of nostalgia. If we’re honest about those years, everything wasn’t fun.”

However, Diwan opts for the Academy ratio, usually a visual shorthand for past-tense storytelling. When I suggest it’s a contradiction, Diwan disagrees. “If the camera is in 4:3 and it’s still, then you go back in time. But if you follow Anne closely with this aspect ratio, then you’re somewhere else. You don’t see people coming – they just appear on screen.” She approves of my analogy that the 4:3 is like walking around with your hood up and almost getting hit when crossing the road. “You’re at the same level of tension as Anne. We don’t know who’s on the other side of the gate. The more she goes into the unknown, the more we’re walking with her into the unknown.”

In terms of reactions, Diwan observes that audiences generally know they’re in for a challenging arthouse drama – they’ve bought tickets for Happening, not M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. But she’s had post-screening discussions with anti-abortion viewers, many of whom admitted they’re left confused by the film. “But I didn’t make the movie just to show it to people that agree with me,” she says. “I try not to give answers but ask questions. You go for the experience, then tell me what you think. I’m the lazy director. I do half the journey, the audience does the other half.”

Next up, Diwan plans to write and direct a TV show about a plastic surgeon, and a movie about “a topic I fear and desire”. Both, she says, are stories related to the human body, although she’s also tempted by the scripts continuously sent her way. Many of them are presumably thrillers? “It’s interesting, people haven’t put me into that thriller box until now.” As in, this very conversation? “It’s just you!”

However, Happening has already gained a reputation as a stressful, thriller-y movie, with many festivalgoers audibly gasping at a pivotal scene. When I refer to “the moment”, Diwan instantly knows what I mean. “I never try to shock,” she says. “But the reality can be shocking. I don’t want people to feel bad, but I like the idea that your body and Anne’s body are convened at the same time. It’s interesting listening to people troubled by the movie: how can a man in the audience feel what she feels, and feel they have the same body at the same time?

“It’s the magic of movies. It makes new questions in your mind happen. You have an experience you never would have had otherwise.” After all, she isn’t aiming for Cronenbergian horror, just illustrating a biological reality? “That was important to me. If you’re doing a movie about this topic and you’re showing what she saw, then you have to be honest. Don’t look away.”

Happening is out in UK cinemas on April 22