Since winning the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival just over a month ago, French-Lebanese filmmaker Audrey Diwan has emerged as one of the most exciting and relevant new voices of contemporary world cinema with her sophomore outing, “Happening.”
Working with a tight budget, a fairly unknown lead actress (Anamaria Vartolomei) and a polarizing topic, Diwan was able to deliver a nuanced and relatable portrayal of Anne, a bright young female student determined to rise above her social upbringing who faces an unwanted pregnancy in 1960’s France — at a time when abortion was considered a crime.
“Happening,” based on Annie Emaux’s semi-autobiographical novel, is now one of the three movies pre-selected by France’s Oscar committee to vie for an international feature film nomination, along with Julia Ducournau’s Cannes’ Palme d’Or winning “Titane” and Cedric Jimenez’s “Bac Nord” (co-written by Diwan). In any other year, a French Palme d’Or winner would be a shoo-in to represent the country in the Oscar race, but “Happening” – which already beat the odds by winning Venice’s top prize in a competition that included the latest film by Jane Campion and Paolo Sorrentino — is believed to be the frontrunner for the country’s official submission.
It’s telling that two of the U.S.’s biggest indie film players, IFC Films and FilmNation, joined forces to acquire the movie’s domestic rights in a deal brokered by CAA Media Finance and Wild Bunch, after a rumored bidding war.
IFC Films’ president Arianna Bocco, who traveled to Paris to make a case for the movie before the French board on Tuesday, along with Film Nation’s boss Glen Banner, said she was immediately struck by “Happening” because “it’s so rare that you see a young woman’s point of view without bias.”
Although it takes place in the 1960s, the film could not be more timely, especially in the U.S., where conservative states like Texas are passing restricted abortion laws. The Supreme Court’s first case early next year will be a challenge to Roe V Wade.
Despite its political resonance, Bocco says the film manages to be about emotion rather than politics by engaging the viewer to experience, on a visceral level, what the protagonist is going through. “This the perfect combination of cinematic excellent, a cultural, social and global moment where this just doesn’t only affect in American women but also men, families, and people working in the medical field,” says the executive, who remembers being equally overwhelmed by Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” which marked one of the first movies she acquired for IFC Films in 2008.
Bocco said IFC Films and FilmNation will build a campaign for the film at a crucial time during the awards season and will have it play in as many festivals as possible, starting with Chicago, which Variety reported exclusively. “The awards season gives us an elevated platform to talk about not only these issues but to present Audrey (recently signed by CAA as a filmmaker) as this up-and-coming director that needs to be seen.” In conjunction with FilmNation, IFC Films are planning a theatrical window of at least 45 days before aiming for a platform release that will expand to as many U.S. cities as possible.
By the time she started writing the film, Diwan says that she became aware of Poland’s ban on abortion and was “stunned” when she discovered what was happening in Texas while traveling to Venice. “The more I worked on the script, and the more I realized how contemporary it was, but I wanted to tell a story that took place in the past and give it a modern edge that would allow people today to identify themselves to the characters.” Diwan says the “challenge was to avoid anachronism and deliver a period film that would be compelling.”
The helmer explains she was able to achieve this by tightly framing her protagonist, played by Vartolomei, and having her convey vivid emotions with minimal dialogue. In order to help Vartolomei prepare for the role and feel in sync with her, Diwan gave her books and films to read and watch, including other books by Ernaux like “Memoire de filles,” Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” the Dardenne Brothers’ “Rosetta,” Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul” and Agnès Varda’s “Sans toi ni loi.”
The pandemic postponed the start of the shoot, but it turned out to be beneficial to the film as it gave Vartolomei more time to get ready for the part. “We talked every day about her character, the books and films that she was watching, so by the time the shoot started, we were totally on the same page,” said Diwan, adding that the silences in the film were also rehearsed. “I gave Anamaria some dialogue that she wasn’t meant to say out loud but tell to herself, internally.”
“The framing was also very important to allow the viewer to feel immersed in the story and see everything through her eyes; so the camera follows her gaze and every move,” says the helmer. The decor and reconstitution of the 1960s are there, but it only serves as the backdrop.
The filmmaker, who started her career as a journalist and screenwriter with Jimenez’s “The Connection,” “The Man With The Iron Heart” and “The Stronghold,” says she was proud of the fact that “Happening” struck a chord with men, as well as women. “I got a lot of feedback from men who had never imagined that women faced that reality.”
Diwan, who is driven by stories with social relevance, says some of “Happening’s” central themes also include female desire, freedom and determination. “I wanted to explore what it is to be a liberated young woman and feel some desire, and take possession of it without fear or shame,” she adds.
Bocco, who’s been acquiring the hottest and most provocative French movies of 2020 and 2021, including Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District” and Mia Hansen-Love’s “Bergman Island,” says she was also drawn to the suspense of Diwan’s film.
“It’s never exploitative, but it keeps you on the edge of your seat because this character is holding a secret; so basically, it plays out like a thriller, and that’s an incredibly hard thing to do on a subject like this because it doesn’t distract from anything else or doesn’t hit you over the head.”
The selection for France is one of the most exciting for international films with the amount of prestige and competition in the race.
“Titane,” which is open in U.S. theaters has struggled at the box office. This past weekend saw an estimated 60% drop from the previous week, giving it the worst second-week percentage drop of the year so far. There are also reports of between 60 and 100 theaters that did not sell a single ticket on any given weekend day. For comparison, Iceland’s possible Oscar hopeful “Lamb,” which opened in a comparable amount of screens, performed twice as well in its opening debut.
The French committee, which added four new members to its roster is expected to make a decision on Tuesday, Oct. 12. In the history of the Academy Awards’ international feature category, only nine women directors have represented France, with Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang” being the last in 2015. France is also the only country to have submitted a film every year since the category’s creation in 1947. They’ve received 38 nominations, the most of any country, with nine wins, second to Italy with 14.