By JAKE COYLE The Associated Press
“Happening,” winner of Audrey Diwan’s Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year, is set in 1963 France, but specifics of the time period aren’t important. Instead, it’s an abortion story that feels like it could take place in many places, long ago or today.
It’s filmed in a square academic report, and it’s as if the edges of the frame draw closer to Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), an intelligent – perhaps even brilliant – literature student; we see her defining “anaphora” without hesitation—who is shocked when a doctor informs her that she is pregnant.
It’s 12 years before abortion was legalized in France, and Anne’s plight is immediately urgent. “Do something,” she tells the doctor, who replies that it’s impossible, “the law is ruthless.” For Anne, her first sexual encounter seemingly threatens to derail her life even as it begins. She comes from a working class background. Her parents – and especially Anne herself – have high expectations for her.
People also read…
“I want to continue my studies,” she told a doctor. “It’s essential for me.”
Films from Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” to Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” have captured the human toll of systems that leave women with little choice in the face of an unwanted pregnancy. What sets “Happening,” Diwan’s second feature, apart is its tight cinematography starring Laurent Tangy and the gripping, steely performance of Vartolomei.
To a remarkable degree, “Happening” is viscerally connected to its protagonist, detailing not only his navigation of taboos and social restrictions, but also capturing his unabashed determination. It’s an abortion movie, yes, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale of a woman’s determination.
“Happening” is based on the 2001 memoir of acclaimed French author Annie Ernaux, who framed her experience of the ’60s as it was remembered decades later by sifting through old journals and memories. Diwan’s film has no such setting, preferring to stay rigorously close to Anne’s experience as it unfolds. Abortion is even for his friends an indescribable subject; the hint of promiscuity is enough to make her almost a pariah. In a terribly vulnerable scene, classmates confront her in the shower for being “loose” while she and they are naked.
It’s a well staged scene because in “Happening” there is neither intimacy nor pleasure for Anne’s body. It is a battlefield.
When asked about her reading of Louis Aragon’s “Elsa at her Mirror”, Anne describes the poem’s references to war. And she, too, is in some sort of war, with seemingly no one on her side, desperate for help – or at least a little honesty.
Anne becomes increasingly isolated but also hardened and defiant. Diwan films her clinical encounters at length, and in a film where no one wants to speak the truth out loud, “Happening” culminates with Anne holding back cries of pain because the walls are too thin.