PARIS — “Happening,” Audrey Diwan’s film about a 1960s back-street abortion in France, isn’t for the fainthearted. In fact, audience members have fainted at several screenings, including at the Venice Film Festival last September, where it won the Golden Lion.
“It’s often men who say the experience took them to the limit of what they could bear,” Diwan said in a recent interview, “because they had 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 worldwide, it has also fed into larger debates in France around the perception of abortion. The film is based on a real-life experience — that of the celebrated French author Annie Ernaux, who chronicled her 1963 abortion in a book of the same name, published in 2000. At the time, ending a pregnancy was illegal in France, and it would remain so until 1975.
Diwan, who is 41, was born after the legalization of abortion. Unlike in the United States, the current law is under no immediate threat in France. Yet “Happening,” which aims for a sense of immediacy onscreen, has led artists and activists to speak up about the taboo they feel still surrounds the procedure.
The time limit for French women who choose to end a pregnancy for nonmedical reasons is fairly restrictive. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, initially opposed a new 14-week limit (up from 12 weeks) passed by the French Parliament in February. While he has 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 is this constructed social shame that women are meant to feel,” Diwan said, “and the sense that if we talk about it, we take the risk of calling into question this right, which in the end is never assured.”
In response to “Happening,” last December, the French feminist magazine Causette devoted a cover story to testimonies from 13 celebrities, under the title: “Yes, I Had An Abortion.” The author Pauline Harmange, who rose to international prominence last year with her debut book “I Hate Men,” also published an essay in March about her own experience, “Avortée” (“Aborted”).
The essay, Harmange said, was “much more difficult” 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 the societal expectation that women quickly move on. Yet Harmange, who staunchly supports women’s right to an abortion, worried that sharing this would feed into anti-abortion discourse. (Minutes after she unveiled the essay on Instagram, Harmange added, an organization opposing abortion reposted the announcement, twisting the words she had written.)
Diwan felt drawn to Ernaux’s “Happening” after she had ended a pregnancy. She had initially struggled to find stories to help her process the experience, even starting to write a book herself as a way of filling 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, there is a sense here that the problem has been solved,” she said.
That is far from the case, according to researchers. The 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 is also relatively common for women to travel to the Netherlands or Spain, Mathieu said, to seek later-term abortions — a journey that comes at a financial cost, and may itself be traumatic.
That reality is barely discussed in the French media, according to Mathieu. “Abortion is always an issue abroad, or in the past,” she said. “We rejoice over legalization in Ireland and deplore setbacks in other countries, but as a current issue in France, it ruffles feathers.”
Diwan said securing the budget to make a film like “Happening” was far from easy. “I kept hearing: ‘Why now? The law passed in France,’” she said. “We got enough to recreate the time period, barely.”
The lead actor, Anamaria Vartolomei, was unknown, and producers were worried about the film’s box-office potential. Yet 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 talk publicly about her own abortion. She was only convinced to do so after Anna Mouglalis, who plays the film’s stern abortionist, mentioned her own during a news conference at the Venice Film Festival. Diwan said she realized “the vestiges of this shame still had an effect on me.”
Mouglalis, a well-known French actor and women’s rights activist who was one of the contributors to the Causette cover story, said in an interview that the role of the abortionist in “Happening” immediately felt important to her. Abortion was a topic of conversation early on in her family, she said, because her maternal grandfather, a nurse, had performed it illegally to help women.
Mouglalis did extensive research ahead of filming. She brought “a collection of speculums” with her on set, she said, after hunting down actual period instruments. Determining which ones were used at the time and how took “a ridiculous amount of work,” Diwan said, because illegal abortions are so rarely represented in media, and they weren’t recorded.
The resulting scene in “Happening,” which was filmed in a single four-minute shot, isn’t exactly true to life, but Mouglalis’s gestures are carefully choreographed to approximate a real procedure. “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 sense of lingering fear derive from one central question: Will the people the main character encounters, from doctors to her fellow university students, help or denounce her? The French law at the time was “awful,” Diwan said. “If you helped a woman who wanted to have an illegal abortion, you could go to jail. When I read about the challenges to Roe v. Wade in the United States, they echo this story strongly, because we’re talking about the very same legal mechanisms.”
Sharing their stories of abortion, Diwan and Harmange both said, has been a liberating experience. “When you say ‘I had an abortion,’ you open the door to this sentence being repeated,” Diwan said. Since “Aborted” was released, Harmange has received a lot of messages — some of them anonymous — from women who wanted to share what it was like for them.
“The effect is one of care,” Harmange said, “and that’s what’s missing.”