L’événement from Page to Screen: Annie Ernaux, Audrey Diwan and the Subversion of Patriarchal Authority   

Jacqueline Dougherty, University of Pennsylvania

In October 2022, the Nobel Prize Committee permanently established Annie Ernaux as one of the world’s literary greats, citing in its press release “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.” [1] The Committee’s announcement was doubtless edifying for proponents of women’s rights, who feared that women might once again find themselves without recourse to medically safe terminations of pregnancy and so compelled to seek perilous, back-alley abortions after the United States Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court’s injustice attests to the timeliness and may explain the quickly gained momentum of Audrey Diwan’s film adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s L’événement, which was released in the U.S. in May 2022, just four months before the decision. Diwan’s film invites us to revisit Annie Ernaux’s L’événement twenty-one years after its publication. Both book and film present the three months of Ernaux’s protagonist Anne’s pregnancy, from October 1963 through January 1964, several years before La loi Veil was ratified. Twenty-six years before publishing L’événement, Ernaux had already written, albeit as a work of fiction, about her illegal abortion in Les armoires vides, a first novel that planted the seeds of her subsequent literary voice and writerly ambitions. Both books, like the author’s more recent Nobel Prize lecture, remind the public of the fate to which, in the early 1960s, “the French state still condemned women, the need to seek out clandestine terminations at the hand of backstreet abortionists.” [2]

Annie Ernaux has persistently used her dissident narrative voice to expose and call to task social and sexual inequalities, all the while redefining what is worthy of representation. [3] She seeks to right, or perhaps, to write the wrongs perpetuated by such inequalities. She has acknowledged the personal and professional impact of her first book on her literary trajectory. Les armoires vides conveys “everything that had happened to my girl’s body; the discovery of pleasure, periods. And so, without being aware of it at the times, that first book, published in 1974, mapped out the realm in which I would situate my writing, a realm both social and feminist. Avenging my people and avenging my sex would, from that time on, be one and the same thing.” [4] Thus, Ernaux writes simultaneously as a “class defector” (or, as she states, a transfuge de classe) and as a woman from that social stratum against forces of subjugation.

L’événement is a tour de force, the very apogee of Ernaux’s literary subversion, both in form (the text, like all of her works from 1983 onward, is not a novel) and content (its horrifyingly accurate rendering of Ernaux’s nearly fatal illegal abortion). In his 2009 study of Ernaux, Sergio Villani qualifies her transgressive writing as a “shock esthetic” (113) [5] which renders the reader a complicit “agent of transmission in society of the harsh, uncomfortable, shameful realities to which s/he is exposed” (113). [6] Likewise, Diwan establishes complicity with her spectator, who bears witness to the psychological and physical horrors experienced by the protagonist, Anne Duschesne (the alter ego of Annie Duchesne Ernaux).

This image is of the main protagonist, who is sterilizing a knitting needle with a lighter.
Desperate but determined, Anne Duchesne (played by Anamaria Vartolomei) sterilizes a long needle with a lighter and attempts to take matters into her own hands. Wild Bunch, 2021.

The subversive shock esthetic deployed in both print and film versions of L’événement is, by no means, gratuitous. Author and filmmaker must, of necessity, push the boundaries of the acceptable; they must reveal the lengths to which a woman’s desperation could lead, even so far as carrying out agonizing acts of violence like attempting to abort with a knitting needle. This is not Ernaux’s/ Diwan’s dehumanization of women, nor is it merely “shock value.” It is a denunciation of the inexcusable violence and objectification unnecessarily inflicted upon women’s bodies before the legalization of abortion in France. According to Ernaux, having lived through this experience compels her to recount it, for failing to do so would devalue what women endured prior to legalized abortion and is tantamount to aligning herself with patriarchal authority. She writes, “And if I don’t carry out this experience to its very end, I’ll be complicit in obscuring the reality of women and align myself with the side of male domination of the world” (L’événement 58). [7]

Moreover, both Ernaux and Diwan elucidate several pertinent, timely and timeless themes, including trepidation when faced with time’s rapid passing; women’s sexual freedom; solidarity, or the lack thereof among women; and institutionally sanctioned subjugation of women, particularly regarding their reproductive rights. Within the context of these themes, I will focus my remaining remarks on the film’s fidelity to and deviations from the source material and the potential consequences of such deviations.

The greatest strength of Audrey Diwan’s adaptation–and where, in my estimation, she surpasses Ernaux–is its representation of the overwhelming pressure caused by time’s rapid passage. The spectator experiences visually and audibly Anne’s mounting distress, participating with her in a game to “beat the clock.” At various intervals, Diwan chooses to display weekly increments on the screen (“3 semaines,” “4 semaines,” “5 semaines,” “7 semaines,” “9 semaines,” “12 semaines”) before finally showing one specific date, “5 juillet” (indicating the date of Anne’s most important exam). In other words, we “see” time fleeting as Anne’s pregnancy gets closer and closer to being visible, meaning her options are becoming increasingly limited. Moreover, we “hear” the desperation and urgency of Anne’s situation at key moments in the film’s musical choice, namely the rhythmic striking of a single key on the piano, reminiscent of both a metronome and a death knell. Towards the end of the film, the single-note knell is replaced by an extended, high-pitched siren-like sound, serving to convey the pinnacle of Anne’s anxiety. While in L’événement Ernaux makes numerous references to entries in her agenda and diary and cites several specific dates (October 1963, November 22, 1963, January 20-21, 1964, the last of which indicate the abortion and expulsion of the fetus), the reader does not sense the same anxiety as the spectator. In fact, Ernaux summarizes most efficiently the nefarious nature of time by stating, “Time ceased to be an imperceptible series of days, to fill with courses and expositions, of stops in cafés and at the library, leading up to exams and summer vacation, to the future. It became a shapeless thing that moved along inside of me and that I had to destroy at any price” (L’événement 30). [8] Time, that “chose informe” becomes synonymous with the embryo growing inside of her body.

As Ernaux did in her book, Diwan rightly positions her film not only as a defense of women’s reproductive rights but also as a destigmatization of their sexual freedom. Diwan has said of her film’s portrayal of a woman’s right to unrestrained sexual expression, “We wanted to progress step by step towards the idea of sexuality, of sexual freedom […] I think that those two things are under-represented today, not only abortion but also women’s pleasure. How do we treat specifically women’s sexual pleasure? There’s a deficit in its representation. Some have done so, but there are really very few.” [9] Ernaux likewise asserts the same right as a man to unrestricted sexual expression: “In both love and sexual pleasure, I didn’t feel that my body was intrinsically different from a man’s body” (L’événement 22). [10]

“In both love and sexual pleasure, I didn’t feel that my body was intrinsically different from a man’s body.”

Annie Ernaux, L’événement
Solitude takes hold of both the non-fictional Annie Duchesne (Ernaux) and the fictional Anne Duchesne. Wild Bunch, 2021.

Ernaux’s views of female sexuality and motherhood were largely informed by her attendance at a Catholic school as well as by her mother’s strict surveillance and adherence to the Church’s doctrine: “My mother belonged to the pre-war generation, that of sin and sexual shame. I was sure that her beliefs were intangible and my ability to endure them was equaled only by her own inability to persuade herself that I shared them” (L’événement 56). [11] Clearly, Ernaux did not share her mother’s convictions regarding appropriate sexual conduct for women, but like Anne in the film, she soon discovers that peers do. It is disheartening and isolating for both Ernaux and Anne that women are sometimes complicit, whether knowingly or unwittingly, in their own social and sexual subjugation. For this reason, solitude takes hold of both the non-fictional Annie Duchesne (Ernaux) and the fictional Anne Duchesne. Ernaux’s alienation becomes evident quite early in her account, when she states,“There were the other girls, with their empty bellies, and me” (L’événement 30). [12] Yet, compliance with bourgeois Catholic standards at the cost of personal freedom is not an option. Neither Diwan’s Anne nor Ernaux herself–despite her strict Catholic upbringing–equivocates about the solution to her crisis. Ernaux writes, “I experienced no apprehension at the idea of terminating. It seemed to me, if not easy, then at least doable, and required no particular courage” (L’événement 32). [13] Similarly, Diwan’s Anne decides that termination is her sole recourse upon learning from her family doctor that she is pregnant. In both cases, the decision results in a lack of support and subsequently, the abandonment of Ernaux/Anne by members of their inner circles.

In L’événement, Ernaux’s advocates and accomplices are transient, scarce, and sometimes take unexpected forms. The most important of these, whom Ernaux identifies with the initials L.B., is an acquaintance contacted through a mutual male friend in whom Ernaux had confided her plight. Having undergone an abortion herself, L.B. is more than willing to support Ernaux’s quest for freedom. It is L.B. who provides contact information for her abortionist and lends Ernaux four hundred francs to cover the cost of the procedure. Of equal importance is the abortionist, identified as Mme P-R and, like Ernaux, of modest social origins. Mme P-R has everything to lose by nature of her “side job” performing back-alley abortions, yet she fearlessly subverts the laws of patriarchal control exercised over women’s bodies. While Ernaux’s portrait of Mme P-R is not cloying, she attributes to the abortionist the role–albeit distorted–of a mother. Ernaux must redefine motherhood because her life has changed forever post-abortion. In L’événement, Ernaux likens her encounter with Mme P-R to a form of symbolic matricide: “I killed my mother in me at that very moment” (L’événement 85). [14] Ernaux’s abortion is not only the termination of her pregnancy but of her mother’s influence on her life. The literal expulsion of the fetus represents the figurative expulsion of her mother’s vigilant surveillance and strict Catholic values. Furthermore, Mme P-R becomes, at least symbolically, an abductor for whom Ernaux experiences a version of Stockholm Syndrome. She states: “Mme P-R ripped me away from my mother and threw me into the world. It’s to her that I should dedicate this book” (L’événement 123). [15] After the procedure, Mme P-R serves Ernaux coffee, walks her to the train station and even gives her a train ticket, providing maternal comfort against her solitude: “I felt abandoned by the world, except for this old woman in her black coat who accompanied me as if she were my mother” (L’événement 88). [16]

Ernaux considers O., the final female ally in the text, and a resident in the same dormitory, “annoying and clingy” (L’événement 62). [17] Although aware of O.’s Catholic bourgeois values, particularly regarding sexual abstinence, Ernaux confides in O., making her an unwitting and unwilling accomplice late in the text, who assists Ernaux during the expulsion of the fetus and ultimately calls for a doctor at Ernaux’s request. Participating in the carnage of Ernaux’s abortion greatly unsettles O.’s Catholic sensibilities; she disappears from the text as soon as the doctor arrives. Because they fear being implicated in her situation, Ernaux’s three female accomplices occupy only brief parts of her journey, leaving her once again alone to navigate her path.

Diwan’s film also portrays the solitude of a woman in Anne’s position. Many fellow residents in the cité universitaire openly disapprove of her frequent nights out. In particular, a trio of human panopticons led by Anne’s nemesis, Olivia, accuse her of licentious behavior instead of respecting her sexual and social autonomy. Another trio in the film consists of protagonist Anne, Brigitte and Hélène. While Hélène, the most reticent of the group, shies away from conversations concerning sex, Brigitte, supposedly a strict Catholic and a self-proclaimed virgin-until-marriage, regales Hélène and Anne with all she has secretly learned about women’s sexual pleasure in magazines. When Anne ultimately reveals to them her pregnancy and determination to terminate it, Brigitte swiftly abandons her, encouraging the less judgmental Hélène to do the same, lest they both end up in prison with Anne. Hélène remains sympathetic and even eventually admits to Anne that she too has been sexually active, acknowledging that only chance has spared her Anne’s fate. Yet, in the end, she too abandons Anne. Diwan’s Anne is able to find an abortionist and finance the procedure in much the same manner as the non-fictional Ernaux, thanks to Laëtitia, whose solidarity with and empathy for Anne mirror that of L.B., mentioned above. In a surprising, but perhaps redemptive measure, in Diwan’s adaptation, it is the adversarial Olivia–not Hélène and certainly not Brigitte–who helps Anne through the hellish abortion process and who, like the non-fictional O., cuts the umbilical cord before summoning a doctor when Anne’s hemorrhaging becomes dangerous.

Three women are sitting on a bench. The woman on the right is slightly distant, while the middle woman has her arm around the woman on the left.
Brigitte (played by Louise Orry-Diquéro, right) and Hélène (played by Luàna Bajrami, center) soon abandon Anne to her predicament, demonstrating that women, too, can be complicit in misogynistic systems of oppression. Wild Bunch, 2021.

Diwan changes the portrayal of the abortionist, designated here as Madame Rivière, in a manner completely antithetical to the book’s representation. Diwan’s Madame Rivière is harsh, expressionless, cold and menacing. If the actual Mme P-R is motherly, Mme Rivière is a true marâtre. Before beginning the procedure, she warns Anne, “I’m warning you, not one word, not one scream or I’ll stop” (1:17:30-31). [18] This admonition is infinitely more intimidating than the anodyne words of Ernaux’s Mme P-R: “stop screaming, my dear…I must do my work” (L’événement 85-86). [19] Ernaux recognizes Mme P-R’s attentiveness before, during and after the procedure as a desire to attain excellence in her work, a desire that is clearly lacking among the physicians in the text and its film adaptation.

In both cases, the doctors whom the protagonist encounters are firmly entrenched in bourgeois ideologies that desire to ensure women’s compliance with patriarchal control of their bodies. Specifically, the gynecologist displays duplicitous and unethical behavior by prescribing injections of estradiol to Ernaux/Anne, claiming that the medication will prompt the return of her menstrual cycle. Both women learn from their family doctor that the medication’s true purpose is to prevent miscarriage, thereby prolonging Ernaux’s/Anne’s torment and robbing her of precious time to take meaningful action.

In the aftermath of the abortion, Ernaux encounters yet another unscrupulous and, in this case, terrifying doctor who is called to the residence hall to attend the hemorrhaging protagonist. He angrily demands to know why she has done this–using “tu”–and warns her never again to take such action. More importantly, when Ernaux is unable to rise from her bed to pay him, this supposed healthcare professional opens her dresser drawer and takes money from her wallet in compensation for his services before sending her to a charity hospital rather than a private clinic, as she requested. Her botched abortion is thus transformed into an experience of “exposure and judgement” (L’événement 104). [20]

Ernaux’s literary portrayal of reproductive and healthcare professionals is informed equally by social status and gender. This is most evident when she recounts her arrival at Hôtel-Dieu. Before surgery, she pleads with the surgeons to explain what he’s going to do. His vitriolic and unquestionably aggressive response, “I’m not the plumber!” (L’événement 107) [21] are the last words Ernaux hears before succumbing to anesthesia. Their violence, which “continues to organize the world within her, to separate, as by beating with a stick, doctors from laborers and from women who have abortions, the dominant from the dominated” (L’événement 108) [22], still resonates with Ernaux and with this reader, who noted the curious absence of that encounter from Diwan’s film. We discover that the physician is later embarrassed to have behaved this way; he did not realize his patient was a university student and not yet another proletarian woman desperate to avoid being an unwed mother. Deference to bourgeois values reveal the long arm of patriarchal codes in the form of a night nurse who very nearly scolds Ernaux for not having revealed to the doctor her status as a university student, as if her failure to do so absolves him of his callousness: “Last night, why didn’t you tell the doctor that you were like him?” (L’événement 111). [23]  Although the nurse is the only medical professional at Hôtel-Dieu to offer solace, albeit minimal, to the recovering Ernaux, exclaiming during her recovery, “You’re much better off this way” (L’événement 111) [24], the latter remarks that this is less a matter of complicity between two women than of the nurse’s perhaps unintentional adherence to patriarchal, bourgeois codes and privileges; in other words, “an acceptance by the ‘little people’ of the right of the ‘higher-ups’ to place themselves above the law” (L’événement 111). [25]

Diwan’s most obvious–and in my view–most surprising omissions and rewritings concern Anne’s final, emergent encounters with doctors. First, the spectator does not see the abhorrent physician who comes to the residence hall. Additionally, while the film’s protagonist is also rushed to the hospital, Diwan completely rewrites the scene to portray the medical professionals in a more positive light. As Anne, fading in and out of consciousness, is wheeled into surgery, the spectator sees only blurry images of a nurse and surgeon. In response to the nurse’s question, “What should I put on her case file?” (1:32:03) [26], we hear the doctor’s brief response, “Miscarriage.” [27] Perhaps, in this penultimate scene of her film, Diwan wishes to foreshadow the arrival of a more progressive and equitable ethos through a man who, for whatever reason, refrains from policing and adjudicating women’s reproductive freedom. Finally, I would be remiss to ignore Diwan’s creation of Professor Bornec in the repertoire of characters. [28] The antithesis of “elite,” condescending men portrayed in Ernaux’s account, Bornec incarnates all that is progressive and equitable. He admires Anne’s literary prowess and expresses grave concern for her rapidly declining academic performance. The fear that that she will never regain her momentum compels him to confront her about her future on several occasions. Although he is severe with Anne in his reproaches, he is perhaps her sole advocate. His unrelenting pressure works in tandem with Diwan’s rendering of time, driving Anne to be equally unrelenting in her determination to end her pregnancy and reclaim control of her destiny. More importantly, Bornec is, aside from the doctors, one of three men in Anne’s daily life who are aware of her situation. [29] Indeed, she all but confesses her pregnancy and subsequent abortion when she informs him that she is no longer suffering from an affliction unique to women and is, therefore, determined to complete her exams. Bornec truly believes that his student can attain the status of professor or writer; her future, in his estimation, is completely unrestricted by either class or gender.

L’événement as recounted by both Annie Ernaux and Audrey Diwan is a disturbing reminder of patriarchal restrictions imposed upon women’s social and sexual freedom and of the violence carried out upon their bodies. When considered alongside the 2022 reversal of Roe v. Wade, text and film serve as a warning that, without the vigilance and advocacy of both women and men, the past could indeed come back to haunt us.

Audrey Diwan, L’événement (2021) France. 100 minutes. Color. Wild Bunch.

Annie Ernaux, L’événement (Paris: Gallimard, 2000).


Brigitte Baronnet, “L’événement: rencontre avec Audrey Diwan, réalisatrice de ce film choc sur l’avortement clandestin,” accessed November 15, 2022. https://www.allocine.fr/article/fichearticle_gen_carticle=18704191.html.

Annie Ernaux, Les armoires vides (Paris: Gallimard, 1974).

—, “Nobel Lecture,” accessed December 7, 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2022/ernaux/lecture/.

Annie Ernaux and Jean-Yves Jeannet, L’écriture comme un couteau (Paris: Stock, 2003).
“The Nobel Prize in Literature 2022,” NobelPrize.org, accessed October 8, 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2022/summary/.

Sergio Villani, “Pour une écriture de la transgression : Annie Ernaux et l’esthétique de choc,” in Sergio Villani, ed. Annie Ernaux: Perspectives critiques (New York: Legas, 2009), 107-113. 


[1] “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2022,” NobelPrize.org, accessed October 8, 2022, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2022/summary/.

[2] « l’État français condamnait toujours les femmes, le recours à l’avortement clandestin entre les mains d’une faiseuse d’anges. » (15:23-15:32; Nobel Lecture) English translations from Ernaux’s Nobel Lecture are from the document provided by the Nobel Prize Organization. All other translations, including those from the film and book versions of L’événement, are my own.

[3] In L’écriture comme un couteau, a book-length interview between Jean-Yves Jeannot and Annie Ernaux, the author announces her « désir de bouleverser les hiérarchies littéraires et sociales en écrivant de manière identique sur des ‘objets’ considérés comme indignes de la littérature, par exemple, les supermarchés, le RER, l’avortement, et sur d’autres, plus ‘nobles,’ comme les mécanismes de la mémoire, la sensation du temps, etc., et en les associant. » (80-81)

[4] « tout ce qui arrive à mon corps de fille, la découverte du plaisir, les règles. Ainsi, dans ce premier livre, publié en 1974, sans que j’en sois alors consciente, se trouvait définie l’aire dans laquelle je placerais mon travail d’écriture, une aire à la fois sociale et féministe. Venger ma race et venger mon sexe ne feraient qu’un désormais. » (15:36-16:05 ; Nobel Lecture).

[5] « une esthétique de choc. » (113)

[6] « agent de transmission dans la société des réalités dures, incommodes, honteuses, auxquelles il est exposé. » (Ibid.)

[7] « Et si je ne vais pas au bout de la relation de cette expérience, je contribue à obscurcir la réalité des femmes et je me range du côté de la domination masculine du monde. » (L’événement 58)

[8] « Le temps a cessé d’être une suite insensible de jours, à remplir de cours et d’expositions, de stations dans les cafés et à la bibliothèque, menant aux examens et aux vacances d’été, à l’avenir. Il est devenu une chose informe qui avançait à l’intérieur de moi et qu’il fallait détruire à tout prix. » (L’événement 30)

[9] « [N]ous voulions avancer pas à pas sur l’idée de la sexualité, et de la liberté sexuelle [… ] Je pense que les deux choses qui sont sous-représentées aujourd’hui, ce n’est pas seulement l’avortement, mais c’est aussi le plaisir de la femme. Comment on traite spécifiquement de la jouissance chez la femme? Il y a un déficit de représentation. Certains l’ont fait, mais il y en a peu. » See interview with Brigitte Baronnet.

[10] « Dans l’amour et la jouissance, je ne me sentais pas un corps intrinsèquement différent de celui des hommes. » (L’événement 22)

[11] « Ma mère appartenait à la génération d’avant-guerre, celle du péché et de la honte sexuelle. J’étais sûre que ses croyances étaient intangibles et ma capacité à les endurer n’avait d’égale que la sienne à se persuader que je les partageais. » (Ibid. 56)

[12] « Il y avait les autres filles, avec leurs ventres vides, et moi. » (Ibid. 30)

[13] « Je n’éprouvais aucune appréhension à l’idée d’avorter. Cela me paraissait, sinon facile, du moins faisable, et ne nécessitant aucun courage particulier. » (Ibid. 32) 

[14] « J’ai tué ma mère en moi à ce moment-là. » (Ibid. 85)

[15] « [Mme P-R] m’a arrachée à ma mère et elle m’a jetée dans le monde. C’est à elle que je devrais dédier ce livre. » (Ibid. 123; my emphasis).

[16] « Je me sens abandonnée du monde, sauf de cette vieille femme en manteau noir qui m’accompagnait comme si elle était ma mère. » (Ibid. 88)

[17] « agaçante et collante » (Ibid.62).

[18] « Je vous préviens, pas un mot, pas un cri ou j’arrête. » (1:17:30-31)

[19] « arrêtez de crier, mon petit… il faut bien que je fasse mon travail. » (L’événement 85-86).

[20] « exposition et jugement » (Ibid.104)

[21] « Je ne suis pas le plombier ! » (Ibid.107).

[22] « continue de hiérarchiser le monde en [elle], de séparer, comme à coups de trique, les médecins des ouvriers et des femmes qui avortent, les dominants des dominés. » (Ibid. 108)

[23] « La nuit dernière, pourquoi vous n’avez pas dit au docteur que vous étiez comme lui ? » (Ibid. 111)

[24] « Vous êtes bien plus tranquille comme ça ! » (Ibid. 111)

[25] « une acceptation par les ‘petites gens’ du droit des ‘haut placés’ à se mettre au-dessus des lois. » (Ibid.)

[26] « Qu’est-ce que je mets sur son dossier ? » (1:32:03)

[27] « Fausse couche » (1:32:06)

[28] Ernaux never names any of her professors in the text. In fact, she only refers to the director of her thesis to state that her first chapter is long overdue.

[29] The other two are Maxime, the father of Anne’s unborn child and Jean, the friend who contacts Laëtitia.