Winner of the 2021's Venice Film Festival Golden Lion, this French drama about abortion in the 1960s is haunting, confronting and important.
April 14, 2022
It's hard to pick which is more horrifying in Happening: the graphic scenes where 23-year-old literature student Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei, How to Be a Good Wife) takes the only steps she can to try to regain control of her life, or the times she's repeatedly told by others, typically men, to accept a fate that only ever awaits her gender. Both hit like a punch, by design. Both are wrenching, heart and gut alike, and neither are surprising for a second. Also leaving a mark: that few care that Anne's future is now threatened in this 2021 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion-winner, because that's simply a consequence of having sex for women in France in 1963, the movie's setting. There's another truth that lingers over this adaptation of author Annie Ernaux's 2001 memoir of the same name, which uses her own experiences at the same age, time and in the same situation: that in parts of the world where pro-life perspectives are entrenched in law or regaining prominence, Happening's scenario isn't a relic of the past.
Late in the movie, Anne describes her circumstances as "that illness that turns French women into housewives". It's a blunt turn of phrase, but it's accurate. It also speaks to how writer/director Audrey Diwan (Losing It) and co-scribe Marcia Romano (Bye Bye Morons) approach the film with the clearest of eyes, declining to indulge the idea that forcing unwanted motherhood upon young women is a gift or simply a duty, and likewise refusing to flinch from showing the reality when the personal freedom to choose is stripped away. This is a feature made with the fullest of hearts, too, compassion evident in every boxed-in Academy ratio frame that rarely leaves Anne's face. It spies the appalling options before her, and sees the society that's okay with stealing her choices. And, it stares deeply at both the pain and determination that've understandably taken up residence in Anne's gaze.
The second of Ernaux's works to hit screens of late after the also candid and moving Simple Passion, Happening begins with hope, with Anne and her Angoulême college dormmates Hélène (Luàna Bajrami, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro, Occidental) getting ready for a dance. They're filled with the excitement that comes with believing anything could happen — there's fun to be had, men to meet and lives to be changed — but, once there, it's obvious that these kinds of nights always follow the same pattern. Their university's resident mean girls glare on in judgement when Anne even talks to a guy, but she doesn't let that stop her. She isn't one to weather their bullying, gossip and slut-shaming, including once she discovers she's expecting three weeks after a casual fling. The only thing that terrifies the ambitious and bright working-class student: losing the ability to live the life that she's been working towards.
The alternative is highly illegal, so much so that securing help from medical professionals, friends and family is overwhelmingly difficult. Delivering the surprising pregnancy news, Anne's family doctor (Fabrizio Rongione, Azor) is sympathetic to the stark scenario facing his patient, knowing the stigma that'll come her way for being an unwed single mother, and that her dreams of teaching will be derailed. Still, given that prison is the punishment for illicit terminations, he shuts down any notion of lending a hand. Even chatting about abortion hypothetically with Hélène and Brigitte before they know she's with child earns the same dismissive response. The baby's father (Julien Frison, Lover for a Day), a visiting student, just wants the situation handled, and asking a flirtatious classmate (Kacey Mottet Klein, Farewell to the Night) for assistance just ends with him hitting on Anne; she's already pregnant so he figures she'll be up for it and there'll be no consequences.
Diwan's film is patient and precise as it marks the passing time with text on-screen, each successive week making Anne's situation more precarious and her hopes of avoiding parenthood less likely. It's a straightforward touch, but such overt tracking helps achieve Happening's key aim: immersing viewers in Anne's distressing emotional, physical and psychological rollercoaster ride. She knows what she wants, and what she definitely doesn't. As weeks flit by, though, and every potential avenue for support either crumbles or deepens her struggle, the ordeal takes its toll. Anne persists, searching for acquaintances of friends of friends who can guide her in the right direction in whispers, and Happening is committed to depicting the loneliness, hurt and despair that follows. Whether involving injections, knitting needles, secret procedures and stifled anguished cries, or just the grim tenor of her words and posture, the result is harrowing and unsettling.
Vartolomei's on-screen credits date back more than a decade, but this is a career-catapulting performance — and film-defining. She's saddled with a mammoth task, with cinematographer Laurent Tangy (OSS 117: From Africa with Love) rarely peering elsewhere, and she ensures that every feeling coursing through Anne's veins reverberates through the lens. Vartolomei is furious, agitated and panicked all at once. She's resolute and resourceful as well, and also frightened and exhausted. Her inner state gets its own echo in the mood-setting score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, who also made 2021 TV miniseries Scenes From a Marriage sting with tension, but she'd leave the same heartbreaking impression if Happening didn't feature a note of music. And while her portrayal is all her own, it's as instinctual as the last exceptional performance in the last phenomenal award-winning drama about abortion, aka Sidney Flanigan's in 2020's Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
It doesn't escape attention that Diwan almost plays it coy with period details; if you didn't know going in that Happening is set in the 60s, it isn't quick to point it out. The fashion nods that way — in having Anne frequently seen in the same dusty red top, the film also uses costuming to convey her modest background and urgent focus on much more important things than clothing — and there's a clear lack of phones, of course. Expressing that this type of tale still rings true today is another of the movie's objectives, however, and it's as compelling a move as Diwan makes. Happening is haunting and shattering, immaculately crafted, unwavering in its honesty, and as confronting as it needs to be, and it wields all of the above with passion and purpose. And yes, picking what's more horrendous — Anne's many physical traumas, or the contempt that women are held in for having uteruses, liking sex and seeking agency over their futures — is impossible.