It’s 1963 in France and Anne is an ambitious, 23-year-old college student who becomes pregnant. She doesn't want to be. She's not ready to be a mother. But abortion isn’t legal in the country and won’t be for another 12 years. In the new film “ Happening,” Anne must find a solution on her own, though that choice also means risking her life and freedom.
“Happening” is a based on a true story. It belongs to author Annie Ernaux, who published her account of the traumatic experience in 2001. Forty years after the fact, Ernaux’s frank and honest memories of the unwanted pregnancy, the isolation, the fear and her determination struck a chord even though the procedure had then been legal in France for over 25 years.
The film adaptation opens in North American theaters Friday with a renewed urgency around access to abortion. A report Monday night suggested the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion in the U.S. The leaked draft opinion would allow individual states to more heavily regulate or outright ban the procedure.
Diwan said that she didn't make the film to give answers but to ask questions. Though it's technically a period piece, she was keenly aware that she was also making something that met the moment by putting the audience in the shoes of her working class protagonist.
“When I read the book, I had the feeling that it was a kind of intense thriller,” said writer-director Audrey Diwan in an interview last week. “I wanted the movie to be a physical experience — not a political manifesto but a true cinematic experience.”
She didn’t want to the camera to show Anne. She wanted the camera to be Anne. And she needed an actor who could throw herself 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 dove into a candid conversation about the nudity that would be required, Diwan knew she’d found someone special.
“I thought, she has something in common with Anne,” Diwan said. “There’s a determination.”
Determination might even be an understatement. When Vartolomei, now 23, got the script from her agent she told herself, “This will be my part. I will let no other actor do it.”
Still, she was grateful for the extra time that COVID-19 lockdowns provided. She studied the '60s and watched films that Diwan recommended, like the Dardennes' “Rosetta," László Nemes' “Son of Saul" and Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," all of which helped inform various aspects of the character.
Much of Anne's journey is a silent one — the word abortion isn't even uttered in the film (nor is it in the book). To help her actor, Diwan came up with some interior monologues, words and sentences that Vartolomei could repeat in her head that would help get her in the right mindset before filming particular scenes.
“The further she goes, the more paranoid she becomes,” Vartolomei said. “She’s so afraid of being caught. Everything becomes more interior. She is a soldier and she has to lead an inner war and stay focused on her goal.”
Then there are the several scenes in which Anne experiences massive pain. They get more intense as the story and pregnancy progress. To help bring Anne’s discomfort to light, Vartolomei used an earpiece with a tick-tok sound. Not only did it help her feel disoriented and irritated for the scenes, but it also became a sort of physical manifestation of time running out with this “bomb” growing inside her.
These scenes are no doubt harrowing, but Diwan trusts the audience to choose for themselves how much they want to watch and if they need a break while doing so.
“Annie Ernaux, when she writes, she doesn’t look away, so I can’t look away,” Diwan said. “I wanted the film to feel immersive but I didn’t want the audience to feel trapped.”
The film was hard to get made and Diwan’s greatest fear was that it wouldn’t be seen. She needn’t have worried, 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 Chloé Zhao, she got word that it would be shown to audiences around the world.
It’s been a breakout moment for Vartolomei, who has been working as an actor in France since she was 10. “Happening” has helped put her on another level, not just as an adult actor but as one with global potential. She’d like to do films in her native Romania and in Hollywood, too. After the film won at Venice, Vartolomei signed with the powerful talent agency CAA and already there are some exciting things in the works that she can’t yet talk about publicly. She’s a little anxious her English isn’t strong enough yet, but she’s working on it.
For the past several months, she and Diwan have been on a non-stop circuit with the film. And every screening invites new, interesting conversations, especially in countries where abortion rights are being challenged. They’ve heard intimate stories from women who have gone through the same thing as Anne and testimonies from both sexes who’ve said they’ve reconsidered their stance on the issue after seeing the film.
“Women can finally talk about it without fearing being understood and heard,” Vartolomei said. “I’m happy and proud to be part of this change.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr
Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press