L’Événement. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and New Dorms
L’Événement (The Event), the film which won French director Audrey Diwan the Golden Lion last fall in Venice, begins with a dialogue that takes place off-screen, while on-screen, what we see are the opening credits. This beginning sets a certain direction that the film will continue to pursue – what cannot be seen, will be understood along the way, and will prove to be at least as important as the things that we do see.
And what we do not see is, first and foremost, the precise event that generates the entire intrigue behind the plot, and that is the sex scene in which Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a literature student, gets pregnant. What we see instead, before Anne manages to visit her doctor, is a text that appears on-screen, only reading 3 semaines (3 weeks) – which, of course, is the age of the fetus. Throughout the film, the text will be periodically reprised, as the fetus’ age keeps on growing. These textual interventions, which at first might come across as a rather cheap directorial gimmick, will indeed end up creating tension throughout, along with their role in keeping the story’s timeline clear.
And the story sounds a little bit like this: this is France in 1963. Only 20 years prior, Marie-Louise Giraud was guillotined for performing illegal abortions. And we still have 12 years to wait until 1975, the year abortion was finally legalized in France. So, for Anne, an intelligent student who wants to keep pursuing her education, the news of her pregnancy is apocalyptic: I want to have a child one day. But not instead of having a life. Because that could make me hate it, Anne tells her doctor. That means Anne doesn’t have any sort of dilemma concerning how to proceed – her only solution is to get an illegal abortion, with all the risks it entails.
Sounds a bit familiar, right? The truth is that there are certain similarities between L’Événement and the film that won Cristian Mungiu the Palme d’Or 15(!) years ago. For example, the claustrophobic hallway of Anne’s dorm is eerily similar to the one in 432. But if Găbița and Otilia’s dorm was set in a Romanian town which seemed to have been shot through a desaturation filter, Anne’s dorm is in Angoulême, a town so picturesque that the only way to describe it is to mention that this is the place where Wes Anderson shot The French Dispatch. Not to mention the seductive retro allure that the film achieves by setting its storyline in 1963, in the seductive pre-’68 years of France.
The cinematography of Diwan’s film is, in and of itself, highly alluring from an aesthetic point of view. Even the mere fact that it uses the academy format seems to derive from a sort of Instagramized cinematic frame. Of course, the rule book of cinema says that this is much rather a choice that reflects a certain spatial constriction of its main character, who ends up filling the cinematic frame in the case of a close-up, and so on. But there is something almost aspiration in the way in which most of these shots look like potential screenshots, from the soft close-ups of Vartolomei’s face to the bokeh in the night scenes or the pastel colors of the scene at the beach.
But, as I mentioned earlier, in L’Événement, what we don’t see is just as important. If in 432, Mungiu kept himself at a distance from the main topic that was comfortable enough for the film to be used as ammunition by both sides in the abortion debate (its infamous shot of a fetus lying on the floor and all), here, the closeness that spectators have to Anne doesn’t allow any of them to possibly interpret the film as being anti-abortion. This, especially considering the reignition of the debate regarding Roe v. Wade in the United States, gives the film a markedly propagandistic element to it (and I’m using the term without suggesting any negative connotations) – of the type that says remember how it used to be. An element that is all the stronger given that the film is an adaptation of an autobiographical piece of prose (and that is Annie Ernaux’s eponymous novel).
This closeness that I mentioned, which makes one feel that they’re breathing down Anne’s neck is, for the better part of the film, one that primarily banks on Anamaria Vartolomei’s acting skills. Skills which, to be fair, Vartolomei has plenty of. Born in Bacău, Romania, Vartolomei moved to France when she was 6 years old, together with her parents. 6 years later, she had her debut film screed at Cannes, My Little Princess, Eva Ionesco’s semi-autobiographical film, inspired by the forms of abuse that the filmmaker endured as a child from her mother, the French-Romanian photographer Irina Ionesco.
In L’Événement, Vartolomei’s inner force carries the entire film. Although Anne is surrounded by friends and colleagues, most of them shy away from helping her, while we, the spectators, end up following Anne (often seen in close-ups) as she faces her destiny all by herself. She is by herself since, just like in 432, all the men in the film are dumb, more or less sympathetic, and more or less sleazy (and thank God we don’t have any equivalent to Mr. Bebe here). They’re all placed between the two pillars of a spectrum: they’re either shrugging “empathically” while regretfully noting that there’s not much you can do, or they’re trying to make use of Anne and her situation.
As for the women, the discussion regarding the friends and colleagues of Anne is a bit more nuanced. Diwan manages to achieve a difficult feat, and that is to evoke feminine camaraderie, which sometimes surfaces in a line or a caress, but that remains otherwise submerged, unspoken, but implicit. The film is much more interesting in its sequences with young women, like the ones capturing the discussions between Anne and her friends – on topics such as school, boys, and sex. And in L’Événement, teenage sexuality, curious and repressed, almost seems to spill beneath the limits of the screen. It’s something that you can’t really put your finger on without sounding fake (which happens in the case of countless teen movies), but Diwan proves a particular understanding of how Anne and her friends are thinking of things: about their wants, their fears and so on. From this perspective, the film calls to mind Girls Pictures by Justine Kurland, with its carefully directed portraits of young girls, that still come across as very natural and unstudied.
As a film about abortion, L’Événement checks off most boxes – and the primary credit for this goes to Anamariei Vartolomei. But the film truly feels natural once it enters teen movie terrain, where its sense of ease becomes impressive. And as a teen movie, L’Événement is indeed memorable.
Happening / L'evenement
Anamaria Vartolomei, Anna Mouglalis, Kasey Mottet Klein
An adaptation of Annie Ernaux\'s eponymous novel, looking back on her experience with abortion when it was still illegal in France in the 1960s.