Powerful French abortion drama ‘Happening’ lands in US

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Actress Anamaria Vartolomei, left, and director Audrey Diwan pose for a portrait to promote the film

Actress Anamaria Vartolomei, left, and director Audrey Diwan pose for a portrait to promote the film “Happening,” Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in New York City. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

It is 1963 in France and Anne is an ambitious 23-year-old student who becomes pregnant. She doesn’t want to be. She is not ready to be a mother. But abortion is not legal in the country and will not be for 12 years. In the new film ‘Happening’, Anne must find a solution on her own, even if that choice also means risking her life and freedom.

“Happening” is based on a true story. It is owned by author Annie Ernaux, who published her account of the traumatic experience in 2001. Forty years on, Ernaux’s candid and honest recollections of unwanted pregnancy, isolation, fear and her determination struck a chord even though the procedure had then been legal in France for more than 25 years.

The film adaptation opens Friday in North American theaters with renewed urgency around abortion access. A report released late Monday suggested the US Supreme Court may be on the verge of overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion in the United States. The leaked draft notice would allow individual states to more heavily regulate or outright ban the procedure.

Diwan said she didn’t make the film to give answers but to ask questions. Although it was technically a period piece, it was acutely aware that it was also doing something to fit the moment by putting audiences in the shoes of its working-class protagonist.

“When I read the book, I felt like it was kind of an intense thriller,” writer-director Audrey Diwan said in an interview last week. “I wanted the film to be a physical experience – not a political manifesto but a real cinematic experience.”

She didn’t want the camera to show Anne. She wanted the camera to be Anne. And she needed an actor who could jump into the role physically and emotionally, who could convey a world of feelings with just a look, and who would be an intellectual partner in the process.

When French-Romanian actress Anamaria Vartolomei walked into the audition and got into a candid conversation about the nudity that would be required, Diwan knew she had found someone special.

“I thought she had something in common with Anne,” Diwan said. “There is a determination.

Determination might even be an understatement. When Vartolomei, now 23, received the script from her agent, she said to herself: “This will be my role. I won’t let any other actor do that.

Still, she was grateful for the extra time the COVID-19 lockdowns provided. She studied the ’60s and watched films recommended by Diwan, such as “Rosetta” by the Dardennes, “Son of Saul” by László Nemes, and “Black Swan” by Darren Aronofsky, all of which helped illuminate various aspects of the character.

Much of Anne’s journey is silent – the word abortion isn’t even spoken in the movie (or the book). To help his actor, Diwan came up with interior monologues, words and phrases that Vartolomei could repeat in his head, which would help put him in the right frame of mind before filming particular scenes.

“The further she goes, the more paranoid she gets,” Vartolomei said. “She is so afraid of being taken. Everything becomes more interior. She’s a soldier and she has to fight an inner war and stay focused on her goal.

Then there are several scenes in which Anne experiences massive pain. They become more intense as the story and pregnancy progresses. To help bring Anne’s discomfort to light, Vartolomei used an earpiece with a ticking sound. Not only did it help her feel disoriented and irritated by the scenes, but it also became a kind of physical manifestation of time passing with this “bombshell” growing inside her.

These scenes are undoubtedly heartbreaking, but Diwan trusts the audience to choose for themselves how much they want to watch and whether they need a break during that time.

“Annie Ernaux, when she writes, she doesn’t look away, so I can’t look away,” Diwan said. “I wanted the film to be immersive but I didn’t want the audience to feel trapped.”

The movie was hard to make and Diwan’s biggest fear was that it wouldn’t be seen. She needn’t worry, though, since the day after “Happening” won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival from a jury that included Oscar-winning directors Bong Joon-ho and Chloe Zhao, she learned that it would be shown to audiences around the world.

It was a moment of escape for Vartolomei, who has worked as an actress in France since the age of 10. “Happening” helped take her to another level, not just as an adult actress, but as an actress with global potential. She would like to make films in her native Romania and in Hollywood too. After the film won in Venice, Vartolomei signed with the powerful talent agency CAA and there are already some exciting things in the works that she can’t talk about publicly yet. She’s a bit worried that her English isn’t strong enough yet, but she’s working on it.

For the past few months, she and Diwan have been on a non-stop circuit with the film. And each screening invites interesting new conversations, especially in countries where abortion rights are in question. They heard intimate stories from women who went through the same thing as Anne and testimonies from both genders who said they reconsidered their stance on the issue after seeing the film.

“Women can finally talk about it without fear of being understood and heard,” Vartolomei said. “I am happy and proud to be part of this change.

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

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