L’Événement is another award-winning, extremely distressing film from France

Audrey Diwan’s period piece about abortion, winner of the Venice film festival’s Golden Lion, plays out like a horror movie.

When Anne gets pregnant, she’s studying to be a teacher and has no desire to have a child. It’s 1963, and abortion is illegal in France. Anne has little recourse to terminate her pregnancy, but she tries them all in a desperate race against time and against a system that insists she leaves her dreams behind. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, L’Événement is a tense and reflective look at the single-mindedness of one woman fighting for bodily autonomy. 

Often playing like a horror film, L’Événement is harrowing. Anne’s sense of otherness, already present as the film begins, spirals into alienation as those around her continually close her off. Doctors not only refuse to listen to her, some outright lie and sabotage her. As the film progresses, Anne’s relationship with her body and what’s growing inside it become increasingly stressed as her body betrays her sense of self. As the film goes on, it’s as if her body belongs to someone else, a shadow from some terrible nightmare. 

An incredible performance by Anamaria Vartolomei anchors L’Événement. She’s abrupt and cold while also channelling the single-mindedness of a bull. Vartolomei’s power lies less in what she says than in her gaze and posture, as her interiority outweighs emotionality. Much like other Annie Ernaux alter-egos, she’s a character who doesn’t seek attention and doesn’t seem particularly in tune with her emotions. It’s only really in the third act, as circumstances become genuinely desperate, that she speaks out or lets go of her steely reserve. The strength of her performance lies in the way she looks — a vacant stare or a worried glance. When Anne finally explodes, it’s painfully cathartic.

Anne’s female friends are infantilized and repressed. With no room to dream, trapped in a foretold destiny of getting married and having children, their sense of self is defined solely by their desirability. They’re forced to navigate coming-of-age sexual experiences through risky and directionless experiences with limited guidance. Resentments quickly grow out of this environment, where women yearn to be sexual but are also shamed for that same impulse. Young women are pitted against each other as romantic rivals, yes, but more profoundly, the perceived immorality of one girl becomes a stain on her whole group. Give in to your desires, and you’ll find yourself abandoned and alone. 

In one scene, one of Anne’s friends, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), shows off her new “discovery.” She places a pillow between her legs and grinds until she orgasms. The other girls watch in awe and horror, unsure what they’re witnessing. It’s an uncomfortable moment about a character seeking reassurance but also showing off. In a world where women are robbed of their privacy and identity, she seems willfully unaware that she’s unfairly subjecting her friends to something they may not want to participate in. But she has no safe space to turn to explore her pleasure and her sexuality either. Characters who have no real power over their bodies cannot distinguish between the public and the private as their bodies don’t fully belong to them. The consequences of restrictive abortion end up having far-reaching impacts on shaping the hearts and minds of the women in that society. 

The final act of L’Événement ranks as among the most distressing in recent memory. Not for the faint of heart, Anne is subjected to a humiliating set of events that nearly kills her. We witness the psychological and political toll of what happens when abortion is illegal in graphic and extended detail. The film’s incredible sound design, piercing and claustrophobic, creates an utterly destabilizing atmosphere that draws you into the horror of Anne’s experience. The intimate and invasive camera further contributes to the film’s airless atmosphere. 

L’Événement is a powerful and immersive character study that explores through one experience the cost of illegal abortion. The movie captures a sense of time and place beautifully, with careful attention to detail and character subjectivity. Still, unmistakably, the film represents the reality in many places in the world — including in Canada — where abortion care remains difficult to access. Remarkably, this is only director Audrey Diwan’s second film. She’s, without question, a talent to watch. ■

L’Événement, directed by Audrey Diwan

L’Événement is currently playing in Montreal theatres.

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