I recently had an interesting commission with quite a rapid turnaround. I was asked to write a poem in response to a new feature film: Happening. I was one of ten female artists invited by BFI/Picturehouse Entertainment to make a piece of creative work in the run up to the films UK release date, 22/4/22.
In writing about my approach below I’ve added and included some random photographs from recent wanderings. My excuse being that it was French film and poetry that got me into flâneuse ways, back when I was the same age as Anne, the films protagonist. (And also I don’t like to make a blog post without some pictures by me!)
Based on Annie Ernaux’s short memoir L’Événement, and written and directed by Audrey Diwan, the film charts the impossible situation of a young working class woman in provincial France, who finds herself pregnant after her first sexual experience, at a time when abortion is illegal and women are discouraged from pursuing anything like a career. But Anne, the student (played movingly by Anamaria Vartolomei,) has plans for a different sort of future: an intellectual life, the chance to escape the confines of her own birth and circumstances.
There is a lonely mounting desperation in the film, nobody to help, no money, no way out – and an overwhelming encounter with shame – around sexuality, desire and ambition. As if these are simply not to be countenanced in women.
The film, set in 1963, is a lush period piece and is paced like a thriller, with nods to Jean Luc Godard in its 60s existentialist chic. The camera loves the burgeoning womanhood and delicious flesh of the girl students, even the male characters, whose bodies are also lingered over in their beauty.
I loved the sense with which it conveyed the shocking transition girls face when they turn from tree-climbing rectangular kids – into languorous sirens, objects of sexual fantasy and longing. What are they/we meant to do with the new self: body, hormones, ideas, feelings – and apparently no power beyond the power of seduction!
In terms of writing the poems, (like Anne in the film,) I had to act fast. So I followed my usual emergency writing strategy, and watched the film last thing at night so that my mind could tangle with it in my dreams. On waking I could write all the material that floated to the surface along with lists of striking visual details I remembered – and fragments of script that resonated.
I was taken with an early scene set in the lecture theatre – where Anne knows the answer to a question about a poem they are studying by Louis Aragon. It’s an anaphora, she says. A Victor Hugo poem turns up later in the film too. Anne is studying literature. She will need to be immersed in the work of the (dead, white) male genii to get the grades to go to university. This too reminded me of my own education, how when I was at art college in the 80s, there was not a single female tutor on my painting degree, for example. The form of an anaphora is one of repeats. I thought, I’ll use that for my poem: Anne’s experience, mine, the zillions of women, we are an anaphora – with our repeated opening phrases and phases.
So I had several starting points: like the tension of the scene at the back street abortionist’s, the idea of an anaphora, the burden of carrying a shameful secret, the turning from a girl into a woman, the irresistible pull of desire, and how that conflicts with being a diligent student, a good daughter.
The poem that Picturehouse Entertainment ended up using was the final one I wrote, Girls, Keep It Empty, and it is a kind of anaphora, riffing on the idea of emptiness. Empty is a word I’ve always loved, those three central consonants making a hollow sound – like a row of rinsed out milk bottles on the door step knocking into each other. I wondered about how a young woman is supposed to cultivate emptiness – as if only a man or a baby could fill her up, and I made this thought into the poem.
I wrote six draft poems and went round in circles with them – running them past trusted writer friends (so helpful) and finding out what jarred or rang true by operating tests for the work: recording the drafts on my phone, playing them back for rhythm and sound, looking at the film again in bursts and letting its cinematography permeate my brain via my eyes. I love listening to French too. I spent a term on a student exchange in Montpelier in 1984, in my second year of art school, which gave me another strong way in to the film. I recognised the vibes, even some of the slang, to my delight!
The other poems that made it past the cutting room are more closely tied to the film itself. The scene in the library where Anne flicks through the diagrams in a dry biology book, seemed to want to become a sonnet.
The abortion scene itself, which I wrote into tough little couplets, as a mirror to the two women acting in complicity.
And the poem I’d thought of as the main contender, which aimed to inhabit Anne’s voice and is called I Have to do Something Illegal.
If you want to see and read the responses from the other commissioned women artists, follow @picturehouses on Instagram and the hashtag #HappeningFilm on all social media. Thanks for reading – and thanks for help to writer friends who read and commented on drafts. Thanks also to the commissioners & their funders for having this bold idea, and amplifying the voices of creative women across the arts.