Happening is a drama about a young student in small-town France in 1963 who needs an abortion, a medical chore made extremely difficult because abortion is outlawed. I first saw this film in early March, and it was a harrowing and very necessary cinematic experience.
I saw Happening again just after the unprecedented leak from the US Supreme Court indicating that the justices will soon overturn the landmark case of Roe v Wade, effectively outlawing abortion across wide swathes of America. Anyone paying attention in recent years knew this was coming, but the seeming confirmation of it was shocking anyway. Watching this film for the second time with the almost certain knowledge that what it depicts may shortly no longer be historical but current reality once more was like a kick in the teeth.
I cannot overstate the absolute urgency of this film. Movies don’t get much more essential than this one. (It won the Golden Lion, the top prize, at the 2021 Venice Film Festival.) It’s true that anyone who thinks abortion should be illegal is unlikely to seek out an extremely sympathetic dramatization of the trauma of being pregnant when you do not want to be, when remaining pregnant will derail the future you are working toward. But even those who adamantly support safe, legal access to abortion should see this. I suspect that many people, particularly anyone too young to remember how things used to be, do not appreciate just what a waking nightmare reproductive health care for anyone who can get pregnant was once like, and might be again.
With her second film as director, Audrey Diwan immerses us with startling intimacy into the psyche of Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), who discovers she is pregnant as she is preparing to take the rigorous entrance exams that will grant her a place at a prestigious university. (The educational system here is not analogous to those in the US or the UK; Anne appears to be in her early 20s, and lives independently at a dorm, with peers around her age, at a sort of advanced-secondary school. She is in no sense a child.) Diwan and cinematographer Laurent Tangy utilize a more square-ish aspect ratio than the widescreen images we expect now onscreen, which somewhat replicates the look of films of the era but — far more importantly — constrains Anne. She is boxed in to her predicament, with no easy way out.
Onscreen labels count off the progress of her pregnancy — “3 weeks,” “4 weeks,” on and on — while she desperately explores her incredibly limited options even as she is unable to talk directly to anyone about them. “The law is unsparing,” her appalled doctor tells her when she alludes to termination; prison is a real possibility for anyone who helps her. Other men take appalling advantage of her vulnerability and the ignorance about pregnancy that her world has inculcated in her. She has close female friends but dares not mention her situation to them, either… and the judgment of some other nasty, catty young women at school scarcely bears thinking about. The policing of women’s sexuality that other women do! Internalized misogyny is real: girls and women can be brutal enforcers of patriarchy when being a “good girl” elevates you, if just slightly, above the “bad girls.” Female solidarity, where Anne finds it at all, is cold and meager.
Diwan, with fellow screenwriter Marcia Romano, is adapting the semiautobiographical short novel by Annie Ernaux called L’événement, as the film is titled in the original French. (Diwan also wrote the gripping 2014 crime thriller The Connection.) That translates directly to “The Event,” and we may presume that what happens now will be the defining moment of Anne’s existence, whether she dies having a back-alley abortion (not unlikely) or succeeds in the termination or has the baby, whether she ends up in prison (which could happen in addition to another outcome) — whether she will go on to have the life she wants, on her own terms and her own schedule, or not. The isolation of her experience even as so many other women are walking the same path is deadening.
This is a horror movie. Anne’s life narrows down to hushed euphemisms as her schoolwork suffers and as her time runs out. Vartolomei’s intense performance is one of focused terror, one she must keep still and silent with lest anyone guess what she is enduring. This is body horror evoked by knitting needles and medical instruments prepared on a kitchen table, more suggestive than outright graphic but that’s enough. This is what we’re staring down once again. Do not look away.