THE PREVIOUS winner of the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, was “Nomadland”, which went on to be crowned Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The three Golden Lion recipients before that, “Joker”, “Roma” and “The Shape of Water”, were also either Oscar winners or nominees. It will be fascinating to see if the pattern continues. On September 11th the accolade went to “L’Événement” (“Happening”), a French drama co-written and directed by Audrey Diwan.
In terms of quality and accessibility, Ms Diwan’s focused, flawlessly acted and perfectly paced film is easily the match of its predecessors. Its success adds to what is already a momentous year in the history of film awards: the Best Picture at the Oscars, the Palme d’Or at Cannes and now the Golden Lion at Venice have all had female directors. But “L’Événement” tells the story of a young woman who wants to terminate her pregnancy: it may be set in 1963, but the subject is still so controversial that Academy members (who vote for the winning films) could well shy away in 2022.
The film’s most startling aspect is that the six-decade gap is barely noticeable. It feels so modern that for the first half-hour you might assume it was set in the present day. The heroine, Anne (a magnetic Anamaria Vartolomei), is studying literature in Angoulême, in south-western France. She dances to rock’n’roll in a bar with her fellow students and the handsome local firemen, and she looks up information in a heavy hardback library book rather than on a phone; but there is no period jargon in the dialogue, and the onscreen datelines which punctuate the action don’t specify the year or the month, just how many weeks along Anne is. The naturalistic performances, frank dialogue, minimalist music and fast-moving handheld camerawork are all characteristic of contemporary European indie dramas. It is a jolt when a doctor reminds Anne that abortions are illegal—and another jolt when she says that she was born in 1940. “L’Événement” puts no distance at all between her and the viewer. Considering the legislation recently passed in Texas, which prohibits abortions after six weeks, that seems appropriate.
Anne is shocked by her pregnancy, the result of a one-night stand with a student who was visiting from another town, and who isn’t even mentioned until halfway through the film. This reaction is typical of dramas which deal with abortion. What is so unusual and controversial about “L’Événement”, which is adapted from Annie Ernaux’s memoir, is that its protagonist knows instantly what she plans to do. “I want a kid some day,” she says, “but not instead of a life.” She doesn’t have a moment’s doubt about prioritising her studies over motherhood, or a pang of angst, or a twinge of guilt about her enjoyment of sex. The film is entirely on her side. Ms Diwan has no interest in debating the issues. The only one that counts is whether Anne can end the pregnancy before it’s too late.
Her primary emotion is frustration—with all the obstacles that society has put in her way, and because so few people are willing to help her negotiate those obstacles. “The law is unsparing,” her doctor tells her. “You’ll go to jail or die in pain.” Her few female confidants are terrified that even talking about abortion will put them in danger of being arrested. Some of her male friends are more helpful than others: one shrugs that they might as well have sex now, because she is pregnant already. But the men all share the assurance that, ultimately, this is her problem, not theirs.
Despite including a couple of candid, wincingly gruesome sequences, the film is matter-of-fact, with no contrived twists or spiteful villains. It is nowhere near as manipulative as most dramas with comparable plots. But, as restrained as it is, it does convey a mounting, infuriating sense of how crushingly unjust Anne’s plight is as the weeks march by and her options diminish. She is as clever, self-possessed and pragmatic as anyone her age could be. She has some money, she gets on well with her loving parents, and her surroundings are always pleasantly summery. And yet even for her the situation is unbearably difficult. In some parts of the world today, it still would be.