“I’d like a child one day,” a college student tells her doctor. “But not instead of a life.”
It’s 1963 France, and abortion is illegal. “Happening” is the story of that student, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), and her pursuit to terminate an unexpected pregnancy — pleading with doctors, taking matters into her own hands with a knitting needle, seeing a back-alley abortionist — at whatever cost.
“The question is not for us: ‘Should she have an illegal abortion or not?’ The decision is made, and I’m just studying the process,” says director Audrey Diwan, who adapted the screenplay from a memoir by French writer Annie Ernaux. “I think that if we want to intervene in that debate, at least we should know what it is like to go through this path.”
Now, as the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the film, which is currently in theaters and starts streaming next month, is resonating with many American viewers.
The director recently spoke to the Globe via Zoom from Paris, where she was getting ready to leave for the Cannes Film Festival to make her English-language directorial debut with “Emmanuelle,” inspired by Emmanuelle Arsan’s erotic novel of the same name.
Q. “Happening” opened last week in Boston and theaters around the US. What have you been hearing from American audiences?
A. I’m always aware that illegal abortion is the current situation for many women in many countries, but I would have never expected it to be an American story. When I started writing, everybody asked me, why do you want to make this movie now? In France, you already have the law; you are protected. I told them that we should have a look at the rest of the world. And now, everybody says to me that it is timely.
[I was] touring in the United States just before we heard the leak about the Supreme Court. I went to Atlanta, and right after a screening, some girls came to me and said, “We are the girls that are going to die.” I went back home with their voices in my mind … Lots of very intense feelings, I would say.
Q. Can you talk about how you discovered the book “Happening” and why you wanted to make it into a film?
A. I read the book after having an abortion myself, and I was not looking for a book to adapt onscreen. At first, I even thought about writing a book myself because I couldn’t find the text that would actually help me think about what I had just been through. Someone advised me to read this book, and I was struck by the main difference between my experience [having a medical abortion] and the illegal abortion experience.
The girl never knows who she’s going to meet — is this person going to turn her into the police, or help? Is she going to end up in jail or in a hospital? Survive or die? I tried to make the movie be some kind of a very intimate thriller. I asked myself, can I turn it into a physical experience? Can we try to be that girl for an hour and a half, and use this body as a vessel to go through that story, and feel how she feels, and what comes from that experience?
Q. Seeing your film made me think of “Dirty Dancing” (1987) and other American movies that have touched on this topic. But I don’t want to say this is an “abortion movie.”
A. Honestly, I didn’t intend to do an abortion drama. I was very interested by the character of Annie Ernaux … this young girl, she just tried to be free. She has sexual desires, she has intellectual desires. She wants to be able to say one day out loud that she wants to be a writer.
Q. What kind of research did you do to be able to tell a truthful story set in 1963?
A. Most important to me was the time I spent with Annie Ernaux — it’s her story, her way to see the world. And it’s beyond time. I didn’t want to make a period piece. Annie offered to do one thing that set me really free writing. She said, “Write whatever you feel is good for the screenplay, and then I will tell you what is fair and what is not regarding the period.” So she was a bit in charge of the period, and I was in charge of the story, and we worked together.
Q. At times, “Happening” feels like a body-horror film. I’m curious about filming these scenes with Anamaria Vartolomei. Did she understand from the beginning why everything was necessary to show in such detail?
A. We talked a lot about the movie before we were on set … she read the book, and she’s very, very smart. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with this young actress. We talked about when Annie Ernaux writes, she never looks away. So it would be some kind of a betrayal to the book to adapt it and then not look at what she was looking at as a young girl.
Q. Have you noticed differences in how men and women view the picture?
A. Lots of men told me that they felt it in their belly. It’s very powerful, movies as an artistic experience — you can actually experience something you would never have, if not for the film. I remember this guy … he was against the Vietnam War. He was quite old, and he told me, “Now I realize that I’ve never fought for a woman’s rights.”
Q. I want to talk about the fact that you were a journalist.
A. I was a journalist when I was younger, and I think it helped me in one way. It’s the way you look at the world, at a person and through that person, at something larger, something more. I always start with something very intimate, something I relate to, and then I realize that it becomes political in a way because the topic is larger than only the person.
Interview was edited and condensed.