Venice 2021 review: L’Événement (Audrey Diwan)

“Vartolomei’s fabulous internalized performance and the trust level between her and Diwan’s direct, non-sugarcoated approach to the topic make L’Événement a gripping drama that sadly still has relevancy in our present day.”

As the recent court shenanigans in Texas have proven, women’s reproductive rights are still a hot topic in some places in the world. It is therefore a good thing that people like Eliza Hittman (with last year’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always) and Audrey Diwan keep making movies about this issue, just so it stays on the radar. Diwan, a relative unknown with just one film under her belt (the 2019 title Losing It) finds herself in the Official Selection with the abortion drama L’Événement (Happening), a film that makes it painfully clear why reproductive rights activists have fought for decades to make sure women would no longer be left to their own devices when it comes to a decision that concerns their bodies. L’Événement is also a film that hopefully turns its lead actress Anamaria Vartolomei into a household name.

Based on the autobiographical novel of the same title by Annie Ernaux, L’Événement tells the story of a young woman, Anne (Vartolomei), who gets pregnant in France in the early ’60s, a time when abortion was not yet legal in France. Because it is still a taboo subject she cannot share her predicament with anyone, not even her best friends (Louise Orry-Diquéro and Luàna Bajrami) at boarding school, let alone her parents in the countryside she returns to every weekend. Anne knows one thing for sure: she does not want to keep the child, as she wants to pass her exams and go to university to become a teacher. And so her lonely and dangerous journey to find a solution for her issue begins. Doctors won’t help her, the young man who got her pregnant isn’t much help either, and a male friend at the boarding school tries to take advantage of the situation. All the while Anne counts the weeks since her last period, and as time starts to become a critical factor, Anne falls back on more desperate measures to get rid of the foetus.

To link past to present, Diwan cleverly doesn’t make it clear that L’Événement isn’t set in the present time. Clothes, production design, and the amount of pubic hair are slightly off, but somehow neatly counterbalanced with the sexual frankness the women display amongst themselves, even if they all agree (at least publicly) that sex with a man is an absolute no-go. Orry-Diquéro even openly masturbates in front of her friends. The complete absence of mobile phones is probably the biggest giveaway that the film is set in the past, but by being somewhat vague about it Diwan underlines how the topic is still not free from issues in our current times. Her assured direction relies often on visual cues, as she uses Laurent Tangy’s roving handheld camera cinema vérité style to emphasize Anne’s growing restlessness and despair. Diwan gradually builds tension by introducing title cards that announce how many weeks late Anne is, and raising the stakes for her protagonist as the moment draws near when aborting the child will no longer be an option. This slowly adds an element of suspense to L’Événement, turning almost to horror by the end of it, a good reflection of what it must feel like for Anne and for all the women in the world that still find themselves in similar situations.

Featured in every scene of the film, Anamaria Vartolomei shoulders a big load as an actress who has to carry the film, as well as the dramatic trajectory of her character. Vartolomei seemingly does this with ease, bravely taking her Anne to places no woman should be forced to go. Self-injection, an attempt at self-abortion, and a shocking blink-and-you-miss-it shot near the end are just the physical lengths the actress goes to, but the real test is in her inner despair and rage that she cannot verbalize for risk of public shame, which Vartolomei channels through an impressive array of facial expressions and body posture. In the hands of a lesser actress this might have turned into an overwrought melodrama, but Vartolomei’s fabulous internalized performance and the trust level between her and Diwan’s direct, non-sugarcoated approach to the topic make L’Événement a gripping drama that sadly still has relevancy in our present day, despite its setting of over half a century ago.