Happening Director Audrey Diwan Doesn’t Care For Morality in Movies

An illustration of Audrey Diwan
Audrey Diwan: courtesy of Getty Images, illustration by Ashley Peña for W.

“I don't want to make movies as a political manifesto,” Audrey Diwan, the director of the award-winning drama Happening, says. “But when a story really interests me in a very intimate way, I always notice at some point that it has something political.” Diwan’s gripping new film follows a university student in 1960s France as she grapples with an unplanned pregnancy at a time when abortion is illegal. Smart and determined, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) wants to stay on her hard-won path from the provinces toward true independence.

Diwan spoke with me at a Midtown hotel a few hours before Happening opened the New Directors New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art. But she’d already won the coveted Golden Lion in Venice last September, over competition like The Power of the Dog and Parallel Mothers. She remembers Chloe Zhao, the Nomadland Best Picture winner who was on the jury, telling her at the ceremony, “When you will be told that we've picked a woman, tell them we picked a movie.”

Happening avoids the staginess of some period dramas by putting us in Anne’s shoes, sharing in the anguish and the ordinariness of her predicament. A seasoned journalist who’s also part of the industry equality initiative Collectif 50/50, Diwan adapted the story from an autobiographically informed novel by Annie Ernaux, and the film opens on May 6. Below, the filmmaker takes us inside of her process of adapting Ernaux’s candid novel for the screen, the challenges of funding a film about abortion (even one set in the 1960s), and why Happening feels relevant today.

How would you compare the taboos around abortion in the 1960s with today in France?

It's not the same, but the silence remains really heavy. The best example I have is that I myself worked three years against silence, putting words and images where we have a lack of representation, and on my way to the Venice press conference, I was still asking myself whether I would say I had an abortion. It's not as bad as it used to be, because we have the law, but there is some kind of social shame that comes with the topic. And it's not only about abortion, but also about sex and female pleasure. Even more with the way Annie Ernaux does it, which is talking about sex not mentioning any feelings, only pleasure. That's a bit taboo still.

In terms of getting funding for the movie—

Oof, a nightmare. No, we were close to not being able to do the movie. I'm lucky because the French system really helps the filmmaker, so I was helped by the public organizations that we have. But lots of people didn't want to put money in, and I can understand most of their reasons. But we felt that some people were hiding behind those reasons, because some people were against [the subject].

What’s it like presenting your film in the United States, where abortion rights are in danger?

I'm amazed because the question that seems to occur most is, why is it always the same story? How can I make a movie about a story set in the ’60s in France and know it's going to be a [contemporary] story here?

What perspective did your lead actress, Anamaria Vartolomei, bring?

She had changed from one social class to another, which is the story of my family, and she was raised in Romania. We both knew what it’s like for a woman to legitimize herself when you don't come from an artistic family—to be bold enough to say, “One day, I want to write, I want to act, I want to play.” We both felt we had a lot in common with the character.

What was your family’s story in terms of changing classes?

My father comes from Lebanon, and my mother is half French and half Romanian. My grandparents did not have that much money, my parents had success, and I was raised by both. As a child, I was asking myself questions about social class. Also, with my father being Lebanese, we always had in mind questions regarding the war—what you have and what you can lose. My father lost his father when he was three months old, and my grandmother raised them working as a school principal. On my mother's side, my grandfather wanted to be an opera singer, but he lost a lung during the war.

How did you want the film to look in terms of its visual scheme?

My first idea while reading the book was to ask myself, “What would it be like to have a camera and follow a girl in the ’60s?” I think that’s still there in the movie. I also felt that the way Annie Ernaux writes, the book goes into what is essential. I wanted to essentialize my way of filming: how do I concentrate on what matters to me—the story told through the body. Anamaria and I created Anne through the body: what’s her look, where are her shoulders, her feet, how is she on the ground?

It really has the feeling of being in the moment with Anne and her schoolmates.

I really wanted to capture that feeling of being young, and to confront the very different feelings—the strong desires and the strong interdictions.

What were your parameters or boundaries in thinking through representing getting an abortion?

The idea of the book is that Annie Ernaux is trying to get at her exact memories, not cheating, not looking away. So as much as I could, I was trying to see, step by step, what it is exactly to be that girl. We don't watch her, we are her. I wasn't thinking about the movies, I wasn't thinking about boundaries. I was trying to be fair, and to be in her eyes. It was not a moral judgment. Because if you talk about boundaries, you talk about morality, and morality in movies, I think, is boring.