Feeling Like a Feminist with Audrey Diwan’s “Happening”

June 30, 2022   •   By Lori Marso

A FETUS, A SPECULUM, an abortifacient wand: each is an “other” that occupies, opens, or penetrates a woman. The female body as always-open, thus vulnerable, host — for alien babies, unwelcome penises, and other invaders — is familiar cinematic territory for familial horror that sparks the fear of sexual difference. Female hosting in archetypical horror amplifies the strange in the already uncanny two-in-one-ness of the pregnant belly, and the ever-ready permeability of the vagina and the womb.

The story of an unwelcome pregnancy and extremely painful and nearly unattainable abortion, Audrey Diwan’s Happening (2022) doubles down on the horror, but refuses any misogynist path that makes the woman’s body into an object (sexual or otherwise), a ready host, or an easy victim. There is no need to resort to the supernatural. The horror comes from the director’s unflinching gaze on the intimate and invasive experiences of an unwanted pregnancy. Everyone around the young protagonist in Happening looks away from her pain, looks elsewhere, and refuses to help her. But spectators, forced to bear witness, might begin to feel their way into traumatic memories of their own; into situations they have heard about but couldn’t possibly imagine; or into ones that they never dared imagine, but now can.

Based on French author Annie Ernaux’s memoir (2000) sharing the same title, Happening documents roughly two months in the life of a young working-class student Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) as she tries to procure an illegal abortion in 1963 France. Audrey Diwan forgoes using Ernaux’s words as voice-over or backdrop to situate the film not safely in the past but as “happening” now; she insists that the film is not meant to be experienced as documentary or as history. It does not inform us about competing political ideologies, structures, and laws around reproductive rights. Instead, Diwan hopes to get at the truth of one young woman’s experience through her body. In a Guardian interview with Lauren Elkin, Diwan says: “As Annie Ernaux puts it in her text, she wanted to touch the truth of her memories. So I really tried to capture the way the truth of the instant is perceived in the body.”

Phenomenological film scholars argue that feeling truth through the body is a key feature of cinematic practice. When feminist film theorists turn to phenomenological thinkers to inspire their thinking on the body in cinema, they are most likely to turn to Maurice Merleau-Ponty for guidance. In The Visible and the Invisible (1969), Merleau-Ponty characterizes film viewing as “an expression of experience by experience,” felt through the body. But this experience and this body are, for Merleau-Ponty, generically male. To remedy this genre/gender mistake and its implications, I turn to the work of Simone de Beauvoir. She helps us “feel like a feminist” by writing The Second Sex in a distinctly cinematic style that brings denied and marginalized experiences to the reader’s attention. Staging an appeal to her readers — does this experience feel like your own? if different, how so? — she does not assume but creates a community of specifically women-identifying readers.

Constituted together — writer and reader, reader and text, a community of readers, viewers and viewed — individuals are joined together by Beauvoir in feelings of identification or disidentification with situated embodied experiences. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir directs our attention not only to structural and ideological systems, but also to how myths of Woman are made material by these institutions and structures, in turn replicated and lived in experiences and habits that recreate gender and genre moment by moment, feeling by feeling. She registers these experiences and the feelings they inspire, as they move, shift, and change, calling to readers to feel those experiences too, regardless of how they may be like or unlike experiences and feelings of their own. In short, Beauvoir helps us feel (like feminists). To “feel like feminists,” all of us must be willing to encounter those discomforting and uncomfortable feelings most difficult to confront and to hold; the ones most often ignored or dismissed; those said to be unbelievable, fantastical, unappealing, unladylike, out of joint, out of time, unhinged, unreal, unhelpful, or simply wrong. One might not necessarily need to feel feminine to feel like a feminist, though feeling like a feminist may be more accessible to those who identify or empathize with the marginalized or whose bodily autonomy is threatened.

To feel like a feminist with Beauvoir coaxes readers to acknowledge, examine, and possibly transform often discomforting or repressed feelings by feeling with others. This does not mean each reader will feel the same as others, nor from within the same space, time, bodies, or perspectives. It doesn’t mean readers are attached to the same objects or share the same identities or goals. In the company of others, readers might share feelings that are not exactly collective, definitely not individual, but relational: existing across, between, and in relation to others. These experiences show how freedom is often blocked for women, but also how it might be seized.

For example, Beauvoir’s chapter on “The Mother” brings the visual, the imaginative, the narrative, and the sonic experiences of pregnancy and motherhood to these feminist senses. She begins with 11 pages on abortion. In these pages, she talks about the hypocrisies and cruelties of the politics and ideology structuring abortion policy in 1949 France (none of which is recounted in Happening). But she also talks about the feelings women have when they learn they are pregnant, and when they become mothers. Eschewing all the trappings of Hallmark and Hollywood, Beauvoir helps the reader feel the real.

Diwan also gets at these emotions — anxiety, ambivalence, anger, fear, resentment, and more — and magnifies them through cinematic techniques. She says, “The idea was to focus on her [Anne’s] body and not the setting. I asked myself: how can I film this so that we’re not watching Anne, but rather become her?” Bringing Beauvoir’s method to life with Anne’s “becoming,” Audrey Diwan inspires us to feel like feminists as she draws on and intensifies Beauvoir’s style, itself articulated as naming the experiences of “becoming Woman.” In Diwan’s film, spectator response and spectator feelings arise from camera angle, image, mood, mise-en-scène, and, especially, sound.

Happening sets its mood, its primary feeling, as anxious waiting. Anne first waits for her period, noting its non-arrival in her diary. Once her worst fears are confirmed by a doctor, she seeks a solution. We wait and watch and feel with her as Anne sees and feels physical evidence of the unwelcome being growing inside her: her protruding belly in the mirror, her tightening trousers. A bright and motivated student who embodies the hopes of her working-class parents, Anne continues her studies but gets increasingly distracted. (Her supportive but unknowing mother is played by Sandrine Bonnaire, brilliant star of Agnes Varda’s 1985 Vagabond.)

Time is running out. Anne visits two unhelpful doctors, the first of which announces her pregnancy. Anne says, “Do something!” His reply: “You can’t ask me that. Not me, not anyone.” The second prescribes a pill that he says will help her menstruate, but Anne learns later that she was deceived, and the pill instead strengthened the embryo. She begs for help from friends, but they all fear the threat of potential criminal charges. Anne’s body morphs and changes; spectator anxiety builds. Film titles announce the passing weeks — three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, seven weeks, nine weeks, ten weeks. As Anne’s ordinary life continues, she becomes increasingly desperate. She tries to abort on her own with a long skewer, but it doesn’t work. Finally, she gets a lead to a back-alley abortionist whose first try fails.

Beauvoir, we will recall, says all over The Second Sex that waiting is what women do — or are said to do. The egg “waits passively for fertilization”; when in heat, the female “waits for the male”; women are asked to wait for suffrage and any form of political agency; merely an “auxiliary” to man, “woman is the one who stays in place, who waits … I am she who remains and stays and who is always there.” The young woman, “locked up in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, chained to a rock, captive, put to sleep: she is waiting,” waiting for her prince to come, for her future to arrive; a woman’s youth is “consumed by waiting,” “waiting for Man.” Later in life, the mother, too, waits, not always passively. Unable to be heard or seen by the common sense of man, she “endures, complains, cries, and makes scenes.” The mother “waits for their [her children’s] return anxiously”; she “waits for her husband urgently”; and then, in both cases, she must “ward off the disappointment of a presence that does not satisfy the expectation of her waiting.” Even women’s work, amid the hustle and bustle of capitalist demands, remains defined by waiting: “All the time they are doing their marketing, waiting in lines, in shops, on street corners.” And housework, unsurprisingly, is even more laden with waiting: “[W]aiting for the water to boil, for the roast to be cooked just right, for the laundry to dry.”

Women’s waiting becomes so much an integral part of their comportment and being that “one’s eyes no longer perceive, they reflect; one’s body no longer lives; it waits.” Hearing Beauvoir refer to a woman as “it” and the embryo as an invader or parasite makes some readers recoil in shame and disavowal. “The fetus is part of her body, and it is a parasite exploiting her”; “she possesses it and she is possessed by it […] she feels like the plaything of obscure forces, she is tossed about, assaulted.” Beauvoir faced harsh criticism for her accounts of pregnancy and maternity, said to be full of “withering condemnation.”

But her withering condemnation — of men, of institutions, of the foreign invader and the body we can’t recognize anymore — are the point. She wants her readers to not only know about abortion policy, the institutions and laws that forbid women’s freedom, and the ways in which motherhood is deeply situated by unfreedom and lack of choice, but also to feel what it feels like for many different women to find themselves pregnant. Some women feel excited, others appalled, others terrified. In all these cases, existential changes are afoot, changes that are intensely magnified when the pregnancy is a trap from which there is no escape. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times says of Happening, “As five weeks turn into seven and Anne’s belly swells, ‘Happening’ becomes an existential thriller.” Ernaux says of the film: “I was immediately plunged back into those days of waiting for a period that never came, which felt like a kind of silent, incredulous horror, back in the days when abortion was absolutely forbidden, when we hardly dared utter the word.”

Hearing Ernaux’s words — that waiting for her period felt like a “silent incredulous horror” — led me to reclassify the film: Happening is not thriller, but horror. Diwan wants us to feel the horror with Anne, and to feel its immediacy. Indeed, Diwan’s stated intention is for the spectator to directly identify with Anne, to feel her body’s changes, to feel her waiting, her anxiety, her desperation. This is different from what Carol Clover surprisingly discovers as spectatorial identification with the “final girl” in slasher films. Not only might the young female spectator occupy subjective space with the final girl, but young men (slasher film’s primary audience) can identify with her too, just as a point-of-view shot from the perspective of the killer can put the spectator in the place of a Michael Myers or a Norman Bates. But Diwan offers something else; her direction completely undoes the subject/object binary. Diwan’s feminist body horror invites all viewers to experience what Anne experiences. Focusing on her pregnancy, the situational predicament as well as the existential trauma it causes her, we are invited to feel despite — or because — the world is so unfeeling.

Diwan registers “becoming Anne” most vividly by the use of sound. Throughout, we hear the unmistakable sound cues of horror — low single notes at key moments. The first occurs when Anne visits the first doctor, learns she is pregnant and that the doctor cannot or will not help her, and pronounces, “It’s not fair!”; the second sounds soon after as Anne stands in her underwear looking at her body in the mirror; the third, in the same scene, when she turns her gaze to her still flat belly; the fourth, also in the same scene, as the camera moves for a belly close-up. These notes continue at key moments over the entire film.

Diwan’s camerawork is unflinching as spectators watch the entire abortion procedure, filmed over Anne’s right shoulder as she perches on a table in the abortionist’s home. We see the metal instruments, the speculum, a long metal stick, and then a long rubber tube, not from Anne’s visual line, but just over her shoulder as Anne twitches, shudders, and squirms in pain. Are we positioned as witnesses? As participants? The only sounds are Anne’s staccato breathing and her gasps of pain. Mme Rivière (Anna Mouglalis), the back-alley abortionist, sternly warns Anne: “Not a sound, a shout, or I’ll stop!” Is this a kind of directive to the spectator too? Don’t look away; Don’t make a sound! Listen, see, feel! Diwan shares how breathing is so central to the film’s effect on spectators: “For physicality to exist, you have to use all your senses, so there were lots of things we used to have you feel something — we worked so much on the breathing and use it as music to tell the story.” Viewing this film at New York City’s IFC Center, an older man behind me breathed heavily and uncomfortably in an otherwise utterly quiet theater, his gasps mixing with Anne’s.

When the first attempt by Mme Rivière fails, Anne has to return to try again, knowing it is extremely dangerous to “insert a second wand” and she is risking her life. Just after this second procedure which spectators are (thankfully) spared from having to watch and hear, Anne starts bleeding heavily. She is in her school dorm, on the bed, and suddenly stumbles to the bathroom stall as horror music sounds, then silence. We hear a very loud “splat,” a splash in the toilet water. Another girl comes to Anne’s aid as Anne’s sweaty horrified face is framed as she asks the girl to get her scissors from her room. Still on the toilet, Anne looks down between her legs where the umbilical cord dangles in plain view. She begs the girl, Olivia, to cut the cord. Anne says, “I can’t. I won’t be able to. Please!” Olivia does it. This act of solidarity seems like a miracle in a film where solidarity is rare.

The film opens to a black screen, and we hear only a girl’s voice say, “Can you help me?” Then we see Anne and her friends in front of a mirror, the “help” required to adjust a bra, to prepare for fun, dancing, the feel of freedom as the young women go out on the town. Anne’s subsequent pleas for help go mostly unheeded. Her plea to the first doctor to “Do something!” Her plea to the second doctor — “I want to continue my studies! It’s essential for me!” — are drowned out by the doctor’s interest in whether Anne knows a boy he knows at her school, a “remarkable young man,” who will “go far.” The doctor commands, “Leave!” but Anne insists, begs, “Help me!” Anne asks a male friend who “knows a lot of women” whether he has information on where to get help, and although he eventually puts her in touch with a woman with an address, he first refuses: “Stop. No. Stop it, Anne!” When Anne persists and follows him home, he tries to rape her since “there’s no risk if you’re pregnant.” She shows her belly to her best friends and demands, “What do I do?” One friend says, “It’s not our problem”; the other friend later tells Anne she too has had sex but just got luckier than Anne since she did not get pregnant. She says she was “ashamed, but the desire was stronger.”

Even in the midst of all this ugliness, the film, quietly but vividly, evokes a space of possibility for the sexual desire of young women unencumbered by threat of pregnancy and the “withering condemnation” of others. We can feel the heat, and hear the thrum, of desire and anticipation escaping the screen that first time Anne and her friends walk to the dance and begin to move their bodies freely on the dance floor. In another brilliant scene that wisely avoids any hint of voyeurism, one of Anne’s roommates uses a pillow to demonstrate how to get to orgasm. She coaches: “You need to take your time!” “It can take time!” Taking time for one’s pleasure is different from waiting on another’s time. The camera fixes on Anne’s face as we hear Brigitte’s breaths come more quickly, get heavier, as she moans and climaxes. And after Anne has secured the abortionist’s address, she goes to a bar alone, flirts with a firefighter she has met on another occasion, and accompanies him to his house to have very satisfying sex. Before the sex, he asks her why she is sad, and Anne says she suffers from “solitude.” With her pleas for help going mostly unheeded, abandoned by country, laws, and mostly abandoned by her friends for fear of criminal complicity, Anne is left all too alone.

Not surprisingly, the father of the baby, an older student who makes a fleeting impression in the film and only in the process of their confrontation, refuses to help after Anne finally, in desperation, calls him and then pays a visit. He demands: “What do you want?” Her reply: “Help! That’s what I want!” Of a higher class, with snooty friends to impress, he is unwilling to extend any solidarity to Anne and worries instead that the stench of shame will touch him too. Being a man, he walks away from it all.

There were two moments where it seems that Anne might confide in her professor, and I, as a professor, hoped he would be the sort of person who would actually help. He had earlier told her that “professors can often spot other professors,” and he invests in nurturing Anne’s intellect, curiosity, and talent. Early in the film, in a large school auditorium, Anne is called on to explain poetic verse. She insightfully notices that the lover’s drama evokes a political one — and this, for us, anticipates the personal is political cast of the film we are watching. Anne never tells her professor, but near the end of the film, she confirms that she can now fully re-devote herself to her studies, having fought “the illness that strikes only women and turns them into housewives.” “I want to write,” she declares. The film ends with Anne taking her exams in a crowded classroom. We hear only the sound of her pencil on paper as the screen turns black.

¤


Lori Marso is the author of several articles and books, most recently Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter (Duke, 2017), editor of Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers (Routledge, 2016) and co-editor of Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier (Oxford, 2016). She is Doris Zemurray Stone Professor of Modern Literary and Historical Studies at Union College in Schenectady, New York, currently living in New York City, and writing a book called Feeling Freedom in Feminist Film.