Happening, Audrey Diwan
Happening (2021)

Backstreet Abortion Onscreen: Stories of Solitary Struggle and Solidarity

Nymphomaniac II, Happening, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire depict backstreet abortion as either a solitary or collaborative experience among women.

Abortion is at once a ubiquitous human experience and one that largely remains unspoken and unseen. It’s been performed since antiquity for women from all walks of life in many cultures, yet it is largely treated as taboo, and depictions of abortion in film are no exception. Films that do include abortion plotlines often avoid portraying the procedure itself, and this exclusion — whether it be intentional or incidental — may reinforce the regard for such portrayals as gruesome or gratuitous.

No matter how viewers might instinctually react to seeing abortion depicted onscreen, film narratives that deal frankly with diverse experiences of seeking, having, and living with the aftermath of an abortion can serve to uplift and normalize it and also caution against the harrowing consequences of restricting reproductive rights. Especially in the post-Roe landscape in America, we need more stories that realistically confront firsthand experiences with abortion. Let’s explore the roles of solitude and solidarity in three films that depict surgical abortions occurring outside the “safe” context of a sanctioned medical facility, each under a different set of legal circumstances.

In the contemporary UK setting of the first film, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (2013), abortion is legal but is only within the protagonist Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) reach if she’s willing to perform for a psychologist who judgmentally interrogates her. Instead of allowing procedural obstacles to delay what she feels is an urgent necessity, Joe resorts to an at-home abortion that she manages completely alone.

The second film, Audrey Diwan’s Happening (2021), is based on Annie Ernaux’s memoir of the same title. It’s set in 1960s France when abortion was criminalized but still practiced underground. The protagonist, Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), turns to doctors and friends alike, but she is repeatedly denied support due to fear of legal repercussions or , in one doctor’s case ,  a belief that she should be forced to carry her pregnancy to term. Anne persists and manages to get an abortion with the help of another young woman who connects her with a black-market provider.

The third film, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) — whose abortion sequence is also inspired by Annie Ernaux’s account but not as a retelling of it — is set in 18th century France, where the law was silent on abortion despite its social impermissibility. This queer romantic drama centers the female gaze and defies multiple taboos surrounding women’s bodies and desires.

Luàna Bajrami’s Sophie, the character receiving the abortion, is surrounded by women who unquestioningly support her in her decision and collaboratively help her carry it out. Portrait of a Lady on Fire asks us to look intimately at this moment, affirming that it and women’s other experiences that have been sanitized or kept in the shadows deserve our attentive gaze.

Although these dramas share the common element of directly depicting illicit abortions, the content and significance of their abortion narratives are notably different. Happening centers around the abortion plotline, while the abortion in Nymphomaniac: Vol II is but a brief sequence in a five-hour, two-part tale of a woman’s struggle with sex addiction. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the abortion is arguably the subplot of a secondary character in a love story, but one which speaks to one of the film’s overarching themes of women seeing and supporting each other.

Indeed, these abortion stories can be positioned on a spectrum where utter isolation stands at one extreme (Nymphomaniac: Vol. II), and unconditional solidarity stands at the other (Portrait of a Lady on Fire). The plot of Happening captures both the loneliness of seeking an abortion under the conditions of its criminalization and the quieter expressions of solidarity that those conditions necessitate. 

Stories across this spectrum speak to how both the accessibility of abortion and the abundance or absence of social support in seeking one can definitively shape how it is experienced. Even where abortion is legal, accessible, and not moralized as a murderous act, it may remain stigmatized as a choice that transgresses gendered norms around sexual purity and women’s “natural” role as mothers. The stigmatization of abortion upholds the expectation to remain silent after a firsthand experience with it. Still, each of these films stands firmly in opposition to abortion’s status as something women should not speak about.

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II

Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II director Lars Von Trier are known and criticized for their apparent misanthropic messages and raw, explicit scenes of sex and violence. Von Trier has also been the subject of numerous controversies outside of the subject matter of his films, including accusations of sexual harassment and taking his proclivity for provocative speech to an indefensible extreme.

The director’s reputation as a misogynist rests partly upon his tendency to portray women as either defenseless or evil, but the strong will and moral complexity of Nymphomaniac’s protagonist stray from both of these tropes. Even as von Trier’s actions have been rightly condemned as reprehensible, feminist viewers can salvage value from the ways that the Nymphomaniac films break taboos around such matters as sexuality, female suffering, and abortion.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, like Vol. I, spares no details in its sexual scenes, showing not only the sensual and erotic aspects of Joe’s encounters but also the unsexy reality of her numbness, emotional detachment, and desperate, futile efforts to fill an insatiable void. The film’s abortion sequence is just as brutally candid as its dealings with Joe’s nymphomania are, and it directly challenges the knee-jerk tendency to keep such details in the dark. 

When she learns about the pregnancy she will seek to terminate, Joe already has one child who was taken and sent to grow up in a foster home. Her fear of falling pregnant again is so crippling that she “repressed the possibility of it” and stops taking her birth control altogether. The psychologist with whom she’s subjected to a pre-op “informative consultation” interprets her desperation and hyper-fixation on the urgency of getting an abortion as evidence that she is not certain of her choice. Joe insists that she knows what she wants, but as she has learned that saying as much will not get her cleared for the abortion, she exits the consultation with a resolved “fuck you.”

The abortion scene immediately follows, opening with Joe sharpening and boiling the tools she’ll use to remove the fetus. Having learned this surgical abortion procedure during a brief stint in medical school, she chooses it over slow-acting alternatives to “get the fetus out straightaway, rather than wait for it to be expelled a couple of days later.” Joe’s preparation is calm and careful: she downs some pain pills with a swig of vodka, lays down a tarp, sets out her tools, undresses below the waist, and gloves up before getting to work.  

This calmness is replaced with agony when the abortion begins. As Joe dilates her cervix with a series of progressively larger knitting needles, she is shown heaving, bleeding, wailing, and turning visibly paler. A coat hanger, the instrument classically associated with self-managed surgical abortions, goes in last. The scene switches to a sonographic image as the hanger hooks the fetus, providing an internal view of it leaving Joe’s body as she lets out a climactic cry. The fetus, dropped into the pool of blood beneath her, gently moves as if to let out a final breath, while Joe’s own labored breathing is interspersed with sobs of pain and apparent relief. The scene’s final aerial shot shows her full body trembling. 

Multiple film festivals that featured Nymphomaniac: Vol II cut this scene altogether, along with some of the film’s more explicit sex scenes, regarding it as so shocking as to be unwatchable. The film self-reflexively confronts the question of censorship concerning Joe’s abortion. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the typically talkative man to whom she’s recounting this experience as a chapter in her life story, is reticent after hearing it, provoking Joe to ask, “You think my method is not worth discussing?” In Seligman’s view, the method is not merely unworthy of discussion but is a topic that should be actively avoided. Joe’s abortion, for Seligman, is a “luxury problem” whose “lurid details” could threaten the necessary abortions that save lives. 

Joe and Seligman’s disagreement in Nymphomaniac: Vol II gets to the heart of how abortion is expected to be neatly packaged as painless, non-elective, and free of gore for it to be palatable to be portrayed on screen. Joe’s retelling of her abortion is bloody and brutal, without a soul present to support her, and she insists that this reality be laid bare to Seligman even if it triggers discomfort. For someone who has been abandoned by the “acceptable” channels for accessing abortion and left to suffer solitarily through an agonizing self-managed one, being expected thereafter to keep quiet can only compound the loneliness of the experience. Joe’s story, with all its horrific details, is not an argument against abortion but a reflection on the conditions that can make an otherwise safe and simple procedure so painful and isolating. 

Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) in Audrey Diwan’s Happening

“The fact that my personal experience of abortion, i.e., clandestinity, is a thing of the past,” Annie Ernaux writes in her 2000 memoir, “does not seem a good enough reason to dismiss it.” Although there was a lingering expectation of silence at the time of her writing, Ernaux’s abortion was to her an “unforgettable event” that she chose not to confine to the private sphere of her memory. Today, her experience of having to seek an abortion in secrecy is, of course, not some bygone nightmare but something that threatens to become a commonplace reality. The record of Ernaux’s story on the page, and now onscreen, offers a sordidly resonant reminder that to outlaw and stigmatize abortion only undermines its safety. 

In Audrey Diwan’s film adaptation of Happening, Anne is a bright literature student who learns she has fallen pregnant from a fling. She visits two different doctors for help, but both are unwilling to risk imprisonment for her sake. Her peers are similarly unhelpful at first: a male classmate treats her pregnancy as an invitation to pursue her sexually with “no risk”, women in the locker room insult her as being loose and diseased, and one of her closest friends shuts her down and insists that the situation is no one else’s business.

“You left me no choice,” she says to her doctor after resorting to a self-induced abortion attempt with her mother’s knitting needles. There, she is informed that her attempt has failed and that the medication the other doctor has prescribed as an alleged abortifacient strengthens the embryo. The hope in Anne’s prior confession to the doctor— “I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life”— is diminished when she learns that the choice of life may be lost to her.

With no one to turn to but the male peer who made a pass at her, she accepts his offer to be introduced to another woman who knows an abortionist and learns that she’ll need to front 400 Francs. “I’ll manage,” she says, demonstrating the determination with which she has pushed through every prior obstacle.  

Manage she does. She sells personal belongings to fund the procedure. One of her friends, in a contrite expression of sympathy, confides that she was sexually active with a summer fling and managed to avoid the consequences that befell Anne only through sheer luck. Holding newfound hope that her own streak of bad luck may yet change course, Anne surprises her mother with a long and loving embrace on the morning of the operation before setting off.

The nurse performing the abortion works efficiently and speaks succinctly, focusing only on such practical matters as payment, physical preparedness, and her need for Anne to remain silent as she inserts the speculum and wand. Stopping at nothing to see a successful abortion through, Anne returns to have a second wand inserted when the first one doesn’t work. 

Anne’s persistence culminates in a night of spasmodic pain and profuse sweating. She rushes from her dorm room bed, where her friend Olivia finds her writhing, to the toilet. Anne braces against the walls and, with a single push and an audible plop, expels the fetus. The camera briefly pans from Anne’s face to the bloody mess of fetal remains beneath her. One of the film’s most profound displays of solidarity unfolds in this scene when Olivia (Louise Chevillotte), trembling with shock and fear along with Anne, agrees to cut the umbilical cord. After helping Anne carry out what she could not bear to do herself, Olivia remains at her side, escorting her back to her room, holding her hand, caressing her face, and seeking out emergency medical attention while trying to help Anne remain conscious.  

The abortion is recorded as a miscarriage, and the final line of Happening, spoken by Anne’s professor—“Dear students, take your pens”—leaves promise for her life on the other side of this ordeal. Despite all the dead ends, hurdles, and failed attempts that complicated her abortion journey, Anne’s resolve allowed her, in Ernaux’s words, to give birth “to both life and death”.

Had it not been for the support of other women willing to put their comfort and safety on the line to help her, Anne might have failed to protect the life she wanted for herself. In a world so poisoned by slut-shaming, sexism, and compulsory selfishness, she finds moments of quiet camaraderie that pull her through: the divulgence of an abortionist’s phone number, an intimate, sympathetic confession, the careful work of a no-nonsense nurse and a friend to finally free her body from the fetus. Anne’s ultimate success speaks to the defiant power of both individual determination and collective support in the ongoing struggle against anti-abortion laws and attitudes.  

Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire

In Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as in Happening, the march of time into the protagonists’ feared and uncertain future precludes any sense of ease in the present. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is soon to be married against her will, and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been tasked with painting her bridal portrait while passing herself off as a hired companion. When Marianne confesses that she has finished the portrait in secret, Héloïse—feeling at once betrayal and a desire for more time together—agrees to pose for a repainting. Héloïse’s mother leaves the estate for five days while the portrait is finished, and in that precious time, the women are free from the constraints of authority and left to live fleetingly in a state of equality. 

As the love between Marianne and Héloïse grows, so does their friendship with Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a maid whose role adds greater depth to this story of sorority. Sophie discloses that she is pregnant while preparing hot cherrystones for Marianne’s menstrual cramps. With the single question—“Do you want to be pregnant?”—and Sophie’s simple “No,” the trio embarks upon a series of efforts to induce a miscarriage, from strenuous running along the beach to foraging for abortifacient herbs. There is no attempt to moralize Sophie’s choice or pry into her circumstances, just three women working together to affirm an unwittingly pregnant woman’s power over her future. 

The solidarity among these women develops further when Sophie visits a midwife to get a surgical abortion after the trio’s efforts fail. Marianne and Héloïse watch intently as the midwife and her assistant prepare Sophie and the tools for the abortion, but Marianne averts her eyes from the procedure as soon as it begins. “Look,” Héloïse commands in a whisper, suggesting that supporting Sophie through this experience entails seeing her and being present with her discomfort. Sophie winces and breathes deeply while holding the hand of the midwife’s baby, who is lying beside her on the bed.

Sophie’s abortion, which is not defined by its attendant pain, happens in the community of and in collaboration with other women. It happens alongside a baby and a young girl whose supportive presence testifies to how abortion is not invariably a choice against children but rather for those who undergo it. The abortion is over in a matter of moments, and Sophie, now softly crying, looks over and smiles at the baby, whose hand gestures seem to wipe her tears.

The demand to “look” at Sophie’s abortion in Portrait of a Lady on Fire carries over to the following scene when Héloïse, unable to sleep, rouses Sophie to pose with her for Marianne to paint. Together, they restage the abortion: Sophie lies down with her legs parted, Héloïse acts as the midwife, and Marianne directs their positions with a series of adjustments, beginning with, “Look at her.” Marianne then drops her concentrated expression and breaks into a smile as she is invigorated by this moment of collaborative creation.

“I do not believe,” Annie Ernaux writes in Happening, “there exists a single museum in the world whose collections feature a work called The Abortionist’s Studio.” Taking inspiration from Ernaux’s lamentation, this scene centers on the backstreet abortionist’s practice and defends its worthiness of being painted and portrayed onscreen. Marianne, whose artistic expression has hitherto been restrained by the conventions of classical portraiture, is challenged by Héloïse to paint the truth of what she sees and feels.

By committing to seeing and remembering each other on their own terms, the women demonstrate that even while patriarchal oppression threatens to undermine their ephemeral freedom, it cannot rob them of every semblance of self-determination. Sophie’s abortion, like Ernaux’s, needed to be sought in secrecy, but it also needed not to be forgotten. The abortion and the women’s choice to collectively make a visual record of it seamlessly tie into Marianne’s words to Héloïse on their last night together: “Don’t regret. Remember.”

Works Cited

Diwan, Audrey. Happening. IFC Films. 2021.

Ernaux, Annie. Happening. Translated by Tanya Leslie. Seven Stories Press. 2001.

Sciamma, Céline. Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Neon. 2019.

Trier, Lars von, et al. Nymphomaniac II. Magnolia Pictures. 2014.