It’s relativity for women — those weeks exclude us from the rest of the world, time becomes secret inside your own body … I wanted to think about this specific moment that takes you out of the world, out of time as the rest of the world experiences it.
Most of the other characters of Anne’s age are sex-obsessed and talk a lot about sex, but also insisted that they’d never actually had sex. It sort of felt like she was the only person depicted in the film who was honest about her desires for her. Why was that?
The way we talk about sex and pleasure is always full of hypocrisy. We worked a lot on that idea with my co-writer, Marcia Romano, because I wanted it to appear slowly. At first, it’s only girls talking. Then it’s one [pornographic] picture [Anne’s classmates share]. Then it’s a girl who imitates masturbation. And then my character is ready to embrace the idea of her own pleasure from her… I think this is something beautiful, but not everyone agrees with me.
There is some shame here. It’s very interesting, the way we’ve been raised with the idea of shame. In the end, it’s very political, because we’re talking about the freedom of half of humanity. On one side, you have sex and shame, which are social and culture ideas. On the other, you have politics, because if you have sex [when abortion is banned] and you get pregnant, and you don’t want it, it’s your punishment — it’s the punishment for the girl who had sex.
This film is now being received as incredibly timely, despite being set in the 60s. What do you think has changed since then, in our attitudes towards women and sexuality — if anything?
I think that many things haven’t changed. It’s not the same story, but the same kinds of narratives. I knew, writing the movie, that it was a relevant story in many countries. Of course, I never imagined that it would be true in America.
If my movie is timely — now I understand it is for one reason. So many people, including myself, have intervened in the abortion debate not knowing what illegal abortion is. I grew up with the idea, that there was, back in the day, illegal abortion in France, but I had no idea what the level of pain was, what the process was, what you have to go through, what happens, what the risks are. I didn’t know much about it. If we have to go through that debate again, we should know what we are talking about.
I also feel like a film about restricting abortion would feel timely at any point in the past few years.
It’s interesting, because when I first wrote Happeningmany people asked, “Why do you want to make this movie now? We already have the law [legalizing abortion] in France.” I was like, “Oh, really? I hope you’re going to ask the next filmmaker that wants to make a WWII movie the same question, ‘because it’s over, it’s over.'” I realized how much we were raised being silent about it. This sentence, coming over and over again, “Why do you want to make the movie?” — “Please stay silent, please stay silent.”
In her book, Annie Ernaux never used the word ‘abortion.’ I did the same in the movie, in light of the fact that we are never even supposed to say the word.
In one of the final scenes of the film, Anne proclaims for the first time, “I want to write.” Do you see writing as a means of transcendence?
Annie Ernaux published a new book a few days ago called The Young Man, and at the beginning, there’s a sentence that I will try to translate: “If I don’t write them, things haven’t come to an end, they have only been lived.” I think the writing process is half of living. You live, and then you write, and then you get to the end of the process.