- Director: Audrey Diwan
- Writers: Audrey Diwan, Marcia Romano and Anne Berest
- Starring: Anamaria Vartolomei, Sandrine Bonnaire, Kacey Mottet Klein, Luana Bajrami
A film about a woman’s search for an abortion could easily feel like a heavy-handed attempt at political relevance, but that is not what Happening is about. Rather, director Audrey Diwan’s sophomore directorial feature grounds its drama in its lead character’s dilemma. It’s no secret that reproductive rights have been a hot-button issue in America for decades, even after the passing of Roe v. Wade – ironically, I screened this film the night before the draft opinion was leaked that would essentially overturn the landmark case. That the film takes place in France in 1963 and still feels as prescient is no small feat.
The film invites comparisons to Eliza Hittman’s 2020 film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in that both films explore the difficult process that women face when trying to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, be it from a lack of trustworthy people or institutional deficiencies, or any other number of unexpected bumps in the road. But whereas Hittman’s film was about two young women stuck in an unfamiliar place – both physically and emotionally – Happening concerns itself with one woman’s fears about her bright future and the impact that a pregnancy would have.
Anamaria Vartolomei stars as Anne, a young student hoping to attend University, who shows promise in studying literature and poetry. It’s not long into the film that Anne finds out she’s pregnant after a night out with friends. One of Diwan’s smarter choices in the film is to refrain from showing the event; in fact, we never even meet the man in question until late in the film. Diwan instead uses this time to build Ana as a character, and the devastating impact that a child would have on the rest of her life. Needless to say, abortion is illegal, and the remainder of the film involves Anne’s various, and increasingly desperate, methods to end the pregnancy. Early on, the literary concept of Anaphora is introduced, where certain words or phrases are repeated to increase their impact. But if there’s any repetition in the film, it’s in Anne’s repeated hopes of finding a solution, only to be disappointed in one way or another.
But Anne never feels like a stand-in for the crisis that women at large faced at the time. Diwan, who co-wrote the script with Marcia Romano and Anne Berest, and adapted from Annie Erneaux’s novel, shows Anne’s journey as a lose-lose situation from the beginning. If she doesn’t find a solution, she loses out on her hopes of continuing her studies. And if she does, she’s ostracized by those around her, even her closest peers. For all her friends’ nascent interest in sex and attracting the opposite gender, they immediately shun the idea of abortion when Anne even hints at the hypothetical. Her primary physician, who neither approves or discourages the prospect, perhaps comes the closest to endorsing an abortion, but he’s more concerned with his own potential to land in jail for performing the operation.
In its final act, Happening becomes a truly fearless, often hard-to-watch film, as Anne finally finds someone willing to help – a woman, no less. Diwan never shies away from showing unpleasant imagery, for better or worse. It’s in these moments when Vartolomei’s performance really kicks in to high gear, as Anne begins to fall into despair. Title cards intermittently show the pregnancy’s progress, a smart visual cue to sell the walls closing around Anne. Speaking of which, the aspect ratio shifts to an almost Academy-like square near the end; Laurent Tangy’s naturalistic cinematography won’t jump out and grab you, but it’s no less smart. Vartolomei imbues Anne with an intelligence beyond her years, and not just because she’s preternaturally gifted in her studies. As Anne gets increasingly exhausted as the film goes on, Vartomolei’s body language shifts accordingly. If nothing else, Vartolomei is the reason to see the film, a star in the making.
But is Diwan saying anything new about women’s rights, or presenting the issue in an urgent manner? Perhaps not, but in refusing to look away at the uncomfortable truths that women face when given an impossible situation, the film justifies its existence. Too many films about abortion would turn Anne’s plight as a melodramatic parable, where Anne and everyone she encounters espouses their own moral platitudes (god help us if Aaron Sorkin ever tries his hand at the genre). Truly the worst thing for the film is that it runs up against other recent (and also rather good) films about seeking abortions, not that this is Diwan’s fault. But the best piece of publicity for the film is how it now serves as a kind of warning for America’s future, given our current political landscape. Happening was the recipient of the Golden Lion, the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and it’s clear that, because of Diwan’s focus on grounded characters, it was a deserving winner.
Happening will be released in theaters nationally on May 13, 2022 .
- None. France had the chance to nominate the film as its selection in the Best International Feature field in 2021, but went with Titane instead. Therefore, the film won’t eligible for next year’s Oscars.