PARIS — “Happening,” Audrey Diwan’s film about a clandestine abortion in 1960s France, is not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, spectators fainted during several screenings, notably at the Venice Film Festival last September, where it won the Golden Lion.
“It’s often the men who say the experience pushed them to the limit of what they could handle,” Diwan said in a recent interview, “because they never imagined what it might be like. .”
While “Happening,” which will be released in the United States on May 6, has struck a chord with viewers around the world, it has also fueled broader debates in France around the perception of abortion. The film is based on a real-life experience – that of famous French author Annie Ernaux, who recounted her 1963 abortion in a book of the same name, published in 2000. At the time, terminating a pregnancy was illegal in France, and it will remain so until 1975.
Diwan, who is 41, was born after abortion was legalized. Unlike in the United States, the current law is not threatened in the immediate future in France. Yet “Happening,” which aims for a sense of on-screen immediacy, has led artists and activists to speak out about the taboo they say still surrounds the proceedings.
The deadline for French women who choose to terminate a pregnancy for non-medical reasons is quite restrictive. French President Emmanuel Macron initially opposed a new limit of 14 weeks (instead of 12 weeks) passed by the French parliament in February. While he said he would accept the new law, he said on the campaign trail in March that abortion was “always a tragedy for a woman”.
“There’s this constructed social shame that women are supposed to feel,” Diwan said, “and the feeling that if we talk about it, we’re taking the risk of challenging that right, which ultimately is never assured.”
In response to “Happening”, last December, the French feminist magazine Causette devoted a cover to the testimonies of 13 celebrities, under the title: “Yes, I aborted”. Author Pauline Harmange, who rose to international fame last year with her debut book “I Hate Men,” also published an essay in March about her own experience, “Aborted.”
The essay, Harmange said, was “much harder” to write than “I Hate Men.” In it, she describes the pain and loneliness she felt after her abortion in 2018 — less because of the medical procedure, and more because of society’s expectation that women move on quickly. Yet Harmange, who strongly supports women’s right to abortion, feared that sharing this would fuel anti-abortion discourse. (Minutes after posting the essay on Instagram, Harmange added, an anti-abortion organization reposted the ad, misrepresenting the words she wrote.)
Diwan felt drawn to Ernaux’s “Happening” after terminating a pregnancy. She had initially struggled to find stories to help her process the experience, even starting to write a book herself to fill that gap. When Harmange found a similar void after her own abortion in 2018, she ended up reading works by American authors. “Since abortion is supposed to be easier to access in France, we have the feeling here that the problem is solved,” she said.
This is far from the case, according to the researchers. Sociologist Marie Mathieu, who has studied abortion in France, said in an interview that “regional and social inequalities” restrict access to the procedure for women. The constraints mean it’s also relatively common for women to travel to the Netherlands or Spain, Mathieu said, to have an abortion later – a trip that comes at a financial cost and can itself be traumatic.
This reality is barely mentioned in the French media, according to Mathieu. “Abortion is always a problem abroad, or in the past,” she said. “We welcome legalization in Ireland and lament the setbacks in other countries, but as a topical issue in France it’s hair-raising.”
Diwan said securing the budget to make a movie like “Happening” was far from easy. “I kept hearing, ‘Why now? The law has been passed in France,” she said. “We have enough to recreate the period, barely.”
The lead actor, Anamaria Vartolomei, was unknown, and the producers worried about the film’s box office potential. Still, there were other reasons for their lack of interest, Diwan said: “In several cases, we clearly felt that some of them were anti-abortion.”
Even after working on “Happening” for three years, Diwan wasn’t sure she was ready to speak publicly about her own abortion. She was only convinced to do so after Anna Mouglalis, who plays the severe abortionist in the film, mentioned hers during a press conference at the Venice Film Festival. Diwan said he realized “the remnants of that shame still had an effect on me.”
Mouglalis, a well-known French actress and women’s rights activist who was one of the cover story contributors to Causette, said in an interview that the role of the abortionist in “Happening” immediately struck her as important. . Abortion was a topic of conversation early in her family, she says, because her maternal grandfather, a nurse, performed it illegally to help women.
Mouglalis did extensive research before filming. She brought “a collection of speculums” with her to the set, she said, after researching genuine period instruments. Figuring out which ones were being used at the time and how was “a ridiculous amount of work,” Diwan said, because illegal abortions are so rarely depicted in the media and they went unrecorded.
The resulting scene in “Happening,” which was filmed in a single four-minute shot, isn’t quite true to life, but Mouglalis’ gestures are carefully choreographed to approximate real-life proceedings. . “I wanted to pay tribute to these women who still exist, everywhere,” she said, pointing out that in the many countries where the procedure is illegal, abortions still take place.
The film’s suspense and lingering sense of dread stem from a central question: will the people the main character encounters, from doctors to fellow college students, help her or denounce her? French law at the time was “awful”, Diwan said. “If you helped a woman who wanted an illegal abortion, you could go to jail. When I read about challenges to Roe v. Wade in the United States, they strongly echo that story, because we’re talking about the same legal mechanisms.
Sharing their abortion stories, Diwan and Harmange said, has been a liberating experience. “When you say ‘I had an abortion’, you open the door to repeating that phrase,” Diwan said. Since the release of “Aborted,” Harmange has received many messages — some of them anonymous — from women who wanted to share what it was like for them.
“The effect is one of healing,” Harmange said, “and that’s what’s missing.”