The new lioness of French cinema

Happening director Audrey Diwan on abortion, prizes, equality and truth

by Richard Mowe

The cast of Happening, from left, Louise Orry-Diquero, Anamaria Vartolomei and Luàna Bajrami. Audrey Diwan: 'My desire to make the film came out of the shock of learning about the reality, the truth of what Annie Ernaux had gone through'
The cast of Happening, from left, Louise Orry-Diquero, Anamaria Vartolomei and Luàna Bajrami. Audrey Diwan: 'My desire to make the film came out of the shock of learning about the reality, the truth of what Annie Ernaux had gone through' Photo: UniFrance
She may not exactly be a new kid on the block. In fact, Audrey Diwan, whose latest film plays at Glasgow Film Festival this week, admits she has been around the block a few times in her chosen crafts as a novelist and scriptwriter frequently working with her ex-partner Cédric Jimenez on such cutting-edge thrillers as Bac Nord and previously La French.

Audrey Diwan: 'Cinema is about freedom'
Audrey Diwan: 'Cinema is about freedom' Photo: UniFrance
Her trajectory may be about to change after her second solo feature Happening won the Golden Lion (or should that be Lioness?) at the Venice Film Festival last year in the wake of another femme victory by her friend Julia Ducornau who scooped the Palme d’Or with Titane only two months earlier at the rescheduled Cannes Film Festival.

She was delighted for the strong showing by two female filmmakers, noting that they both share a sense of anger about certain topics as well as strong streaks of determination. In her case, the Venice competition included the likes of Paolo Sorrentino and Jane Campion.

Her attraction for Happening or L’événement, an adaptation of the 2019 novel by French writer Annie Ernaux, now in her 80s, about her struggle to get an abortion as a student in 1964, seems perfectly grounded in the kind of subjects that intrigue her. She struck up a close rapport with the author, spending long afternoons discussing the politics and mores of the time. Ernaux was a student from a working-class background who fell pregnant just before her exams, and had to resort to a backstreet abortion that almost killed her. It was 11 years later that abortion was legalised in France.

Diwan, 42, says she and Ernaux discussed the fear and the shame surrounding the undercover abortions. “I sent her various versions of the script and she responded to let me know if she felt they were being faithful to the things she had experienced. I appreciated this way of working together. It was a collaborative journey with Annie and my co-writer Marcia Romano.

“My first response to the book was one of shock because I thought I had understood what a clandestine abortion was and on reading the book, I understood the difference between the term and the actual process of what a woman goes through. My desire to make the film came out of the shock of learning about the reality, the truth of what Annie Ernaux had gone through and then I immediately started thinking about the journey of the body,” she added.

The film was shot during the summer of 2020, between the first and second Covid lockdowns in France. She gathered around her a strong cast of young actresses including French-Romania newcomer Anamaria Vartolomei who won the most promising actress award at the Césars last month. “The delay to the start of filming was a bit frustrating because once you have everything in place to make a film you just want to get on with it. We used the time profitably by exchanging ideas with the cast and looking at certain films that were vague points of reference such as Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (Sans Toit ni loi) with Sandrine Bonnaire [who makes a guest appearance in the new film] and Rosetta by the Dardenne Brothers.”

Sandrine Bonnaire makes a guest appearance in Happening alongside Anamaria Vartolomei
Sandrine Bonnaire makes a guest appearance in Happening alongside Anamaria Vartolomei Photo: UniFrance

Diwan who is a member of Collectif 50/50, a French non-profit organisation promoting equality between men and women in the film industry, hired a majority female crew with women holding many key posts such as production manager (Monica Taverna), assistant director (Anaïs Couette), set design (Diéné Berete) and costumes (Isabelle Pannetier). Mélanie Karlin oversaw post-production with Géraldine Mangenot as editor.

“There was no prejudice against men and I don’t want any constraints. Cinema is about freedom. I get on really well with women. And there are lots of women in my team, who are also close friends. They are sort of my family,” she says.

She had her first taste of writing for a visual medium with a television series for the Arte channel called The Twenty Show, a portrait of young people mixing reality and fiction. She joined director Eric Rochant to work on the scripts for the TV series Mafiosa which involved a spell in a writing lab on Corsica. She discovered a taste for the work of such eminent directors as Robert Bresson, Ken Loach and Horokazu Kore-eda whose economy of style inspired her. And her partnership with Jimenez forged a different sensibility towards American cinema. Her first feature in 2019 was Losing It (Mais vous êtes fous) with Pio Marmaï and Céline Sallette about a young father hiding a problem with addiction.

So how did Ernaux finally react to the film? Diwan admit was a slightly apprehensive. In the end the author only picked up on one minor period detail. She was quoted as saying: “I came out of the screening very moved. The only thing I could say to Audrey was: ‘You’ve made a truthful film.’”

For Diwan it was the ultimate accolade.

Happening screens as part of an International Women’s Day focus at Glasgow Film Festival today, 8 March in GFT1 at 8.30pm and also on March at 1.15pm and will be released later in the year through Picturehouse Entertainment. Happening is released in the States through IFC Films on 8 May.

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