Happening Is an Abortion Story About Working-Class Women

Audrey Diwan’s film adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s abortion memoir, Happening, captures the violence and drama of its source material. It depicts a time when sex, for young women — without the resources of contraception and abortion — carried unfathomable consequences.

Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening. (IFC Films)

There is a moment early on in Audrey Diwan’s film adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s memoir Happening, published in French in 2000 as L’Événement, where the twenty-three-year-old protagonist Anne’s friend Brigitte takes a pillow from her dorm room bed, folds it neatly in two, and places herself on top of it, as one might a rocking horse. Astride the pillow, she demonstrates to her two friends how one might pleasure oneself with a man. There is something uncanny about the scene’s literalness — its perfunctory exploration of desire — as if her body were a car in a show room or a piece of furniture in a store and she were performing a demonstration of the object’s function.

Nothing is said during the scene while Brigitte proceeds with her monologue. Anne looks on with what appears to be an amalgamation of horror and discomfort; this is clearly not how she imagines desire. Autoeroticism, we are to understand, is no substitute for risking pleasure with a man, though in 1963, there are few alternatives for young women, for whom sex — without the resources of contraception and abortion — carries unfathomable consequences.

In Happening, Ernaux sets out to write the event of abortion as it occurs to her in January 1963, twelve years before it was legalized in France and twenty years after the death of Marie-Louis Giraud. Giraud was the last woman to be guillotined in France for practicing abortion, the consequence of a recent law of the Vichy regime, made vulnerable by occupation. The memoir narrates the events between the author’s knowledge of her pregnancy and its termination. The intensity of the timeline reflects the deranged, dreamlike experience that Ernaux describes as having “time growing inside you.” In the memoir, she is working on a paper on female French surrealists; her life thrusts her into its tradition.

A Mid-Century Drama

Ernaux’s experience falls between these two dates like a pendulum: we are in the waiting room of history — the chapter before second-wave feminism would find a collective platform to articulate the violence of criminalizing an act that is essential to safeguarding the lives of millions of women. (By some estimates, between 300,000 and 400,000 clandestine abortions took place in France every year before its legalization; others believe there were twice as many.) The stakes are high for Anne: she comes from a working-class background, and to become pregnant is to be deprived of the future that will enable her to write her book. This is the lesson the film takes from the memoir. Though compelling, the narrative lends itself to an interpretation of Anne’s abortion as exceptional.

Diwan’s film opens with a shot of Anne and her friends Brigitte and Hélène getting ready for a night out at a local bar at the university in Angoulême where they are students. The year 1963 here seems to more closely resemble the domestic confinement of the 1950s than the political movements that will unfold half a decade later. We see the young women peer at an image of themselves in the mirror, tightening each other’s triangular bras, imagining what desire must look like, suspended in girlishness. As they enter the bar, the sound of rock and roll denotes what they have not yet felt — the promise of sexual freedom — at a moment when 1968 barely looks like an event on the horizon. History is represented obliquely in the film: through the texture and color of fabrics, high-waisted skirts and loose-fitting blouses, the shape of stifled relations.

Anne and her friends in Happening. (IFC Films)

Diwan moves the setting of the memoir from January to summer, and we see Anne, Brigitte, and Hélène lounging around in pastel shades on sun-dappled lawns, as if we were in an Eric Rohmer film and the mood were one of casual romance (made possible a decade later by the availability of contraception). The shift between Anne’s internal turmoil and the slow scenes of youth intensify the sharp divide between her predicament and the obliviousness that passes for innocence (summer here has the cruel promise of happiness that it does in Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur).

Diwan’s film is uncompromising in its representation of the stranglehold that the consequences of desire place on a woman’s body. Happening is shot from Anne’s perspective, played with a stubborn determination and diffident reserve by Anamaria Vartolomei. The effect is to plunge us as close as possible to the subjective experience of an unwanted act: to make the audience feel the violence of a law that turns women into mothers before their time. “The law is unsparing,” a doctor responds when Anne turns to him for help.

One Acts, the Other Doesn’t

As a memoir, Happening is not an obvious candidate for adaptation to the screen. Written retrospectively, it opens in the 1990s with Ernaux awaiting the results of an HIV test after a love affair and moves through her memories and journal entries from January 1963. Ernaux is interested in what she can recover from this moment, what it will tell her about the nature and limits of this historic period and about desire in this part of the world. Although frequently associated with the term “autofiction,” Ernaux refers to her own work as “autosociobiography,” where the writing of the self into the space of fiction affords an authoethnographic exploration of class.

It recovers versions of the self that fall by the wayside of history; an intransigent individuality from the illusion of the general consensus of postwar history. It is a subjective account, one that tells abortion as history during the period of its criminalization. But whereas in Ernaux’s memoir the clarity of voice holds the abstraction of the discourse of abortion to account, the film is marked by an odd muteness — of the protagonist’s desire, of female solidarity, and of the past, which is put on trial and swiftly indicted.

The problem with a subjective account is that it risks annihilating the collective forms that exist around it — and making the history of abortion look more static and progressive than it has been. In a scene in Céline Sciamma’s eighteenth-century drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, inspired by Ernaux’s account, abortion is depicted as a collective act by working-class women, unfolding on a bed among other children, a natural extension of motherhood rather than its opposite.

The singular and intensely solitary representation of abortion in Happening stands in contrast, too, to Varda’s 1976 film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. That film is set in 1962, where two women form an intense, unlikely friendship that leads the middle-class Pauline to arrange for working-class Suzanne’s abortion, using her place at university to research options and trick her parents into providing student funds that she reroutes for the operation. The personal here is inseparable from the collective networks that pave the way for second-wave feminism and the prioritization of reproductive health.

Erased in the film are the minor details — like the history of labor — that show how abortion networks were made possible in the decades before its legalization. In the memoir, a married man named Jean, who Anne turns to for assistance and who takes advantage of her situation, belongs to an underground movement supporting the use of contraception and birth control. In the film, we see him simply as a swaggering young man who is prone to seduction. The stern abortionist, played by Anna Mouglalis, emerges as a stock character, unlike the woman in Ernaux’s book, who we learn worked at a hospital and “spent all day emptying the basins of the sick and pregnant, enjoying the same authority as doctors who barely noticed her.” The central narrative of the memoir — the drama of poverty and its all-embracing hold over working-class life, embodied by the pregnant girl — is supplanted by a triumphalist narrative of a woman’s success against the odds. It leaves us with a solitary image of Anne, her trauma, and her success.

If these details fall by the wayside, the viewer is spared little of the abortion itself, and the way the experience of pregnancy is embedded in the film transforms Happening into something closer to a thriller. The intent is to confront the viewer with an unbearable image: to represent “the shock,” in Ernaux’s words, “of the real.” Ernaux is on the side of a feminism that can acknowledge violence. In the book, she controversially pits the violence of abortion against the violence that she witnesses, while pregnant, in the 1960 documentary Mein Kampf, detailing the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler, and asks the viewer to examine the abyss that lies between them.

Anamaria Vartolomei in Happening. (IFC Films)

Ernaux worked closely with Diwan on the film. Among her directions to the filmmaker was the instruction not to brush over the reality of abortion — to mirror Ernaux’s own intent and descend as far as possible into “the shock of the real.” But the effect of this shock registers differently on-screen. If, for Ernaux, “the shock of the real” produces a new kind of literary realism (giving us the abortion and not the representation of it), the shock of the real in the film registers as violence. In the adaptation, we are faced with the cutting of the umbilical cord (performed by a friend), showing the harm that an illegal abortion reaps on a woman’s body, not on the fetus. But its effect, nonetheless, is to reinforce the idea of abortion as trauma (a narrative that has historically served to curtail reproductive rights).

Ahistorical Analogies

It is tempting to read Happening as speaking to the most recent round of pushback against reproductive rights (though abortion rights are safer in France, given that they are enshrined in legislation). From this perspective, Diwan’s latest feature could be interpreted as a “warning shot,” as the New York Times claims, from the past. To make a work of literature stand in for a time period — as has been claimed ad nauseam of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been taken as the harbinger of dystopian reproductive politics under the Trump administration — is to make fiction supplant reality, to refuse to look directly at the violence in front of us.

Ernaux’s Happening offers a judicious reminder of why we have literature. It is a book about the consequences of the act of writing and the act of aborting; about the reality of criminalizing women’s desire, of history as lived by one woman. What is at stake in the book is not only the representation of the real (of the interplay between the representation of events and reality) but language and history itself. Ernaux uses the material of her own life to peel away the morally flayed skin of French life, so that abortion can be seen in its own historic violent reality, as an act committed by society to a woman — a choice that cannot be understood outside the conditions under which we act.

The arrival of a collective voice for abortion would, for Ernaux, come later. In The Years, her sociopolitical account of twentieth-century French society, she recounts putting her name alongside those of 343 other women — including Simone de Beauvoir, Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Sagan, and Marguerite Duras — in the spring 1971 issue of Le Nouvel Observateur, stating that they had had illegal abortions. Ernaux writes that “Dr Karman,” the Californian psychologist who invented a flexible suction cannula used for early abortions:

had made it simpler and safer to perform the work of the backstreet abortionists — les faiseuses d’anges, “angel-makers.” We provided addresses in London and Amsterdam, exhilarated to be working undercover, as if renewing our ties with the Resistance and the suitcase-carriers of the Algerian War.

If abortion was initially for Ernaux a solitary act, she would come to see it, in this way, as the center of community and as a force of politicization, radicalizing how we think of motherhood and female labor.

“I don’t believe there is a single museum in the world whose collections feature a work called The Abortionist’s Studio,” Ernaux writes. In her memoir, she gives us glimpses of that lost archive — of the intimate silent medical encounters that happened on scrubbed kitchen tables and roughly decked beds throughout the twentieth century — that remains knowledge half-spoken between women. In Happening, the experience of undergoing an abortion is represented as a kind of second birth, which Ernaux describes paradoxically as killing her mother inside her: an intimate act of life and death, an act that pulls her into “a line of women” — the “future generations who would pass through us.” Ernaux gives us a language that tears abortion from the tightly pressed terms of privacy, choice, and trauma in which it is often couched, so that it is articulated as a kind of delivery — of female agency and of women’s desire.