For a filmmaker to open their movie by dropping their audience into a situation or a world can often cause a distinct type of disorientation; a feeling as if the viewer were fully on the same experiential level as the protagonist. Audrey Diwan’s Happening does that in a way, never grandly announcing that itself to in fact be a period piece. And while you do gradually put it together, it’s rather pointed that it takes you a second: the young women protagonist speaks in a way that sounds more or less contemporary, if you’re not thinking too hard about it; and if the costumes may look a little older, the film is shot in such tender, peering close-up that you scarcely notice them. But when phones don’t start appearing it’s cemented pretty quick; we’re in 1963, but the fact that this decades ago time felt so contemporary to us is rather important. For that aforementioned protagonist, Anne, she’s twenty-three-years-old and unwillingly pregnant; determined to do something about it, only to immediately find every door in her world closed off.
Happening arrives as the latest in an ongoing run of tough, emotionally intelligent arthouse films dealing frankly and unflinchingly with the subject of abortion access: It earns its place in the company of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, the broad story of it all isn’t new, but it bears repeating, especially when it’s told in each an empathetic and honest manner as this is. Without being didactic or preachy, Happening powerfully essays the mortal risks that come with refusing women control over their bodies.
“It suits them to think I’m a slut,” gifted literature student Anne (a great Anamaria Vartolomei) says early on when speaking about the prim, moralistic mean girls that she lives with in her Angoulême college dorm, many of whom hawkishly monitor their peers’ bodies in the bathroom and showers for signs of sexual activity. As it happens, while not a virgin, Anne is pretty sensible and meek: Three weeks after an unseen fling with a nice, respectable student from another town, she couldn’t be more stunned to discover that she’s pregnant. For a young working-class woman with aspirations on an extended academic career, it’s the worst possible news. Continuing studies as a single mother isn’t an option for women like her in 1963, but terminating the pregnancy is, if anything, even more far-fetched. Potential prison time awaits those who are caught undergoing, executing or even enabling an abortion. “Don’t even joke about it,” a stricken friend of Anne’s, unaware of her friend’s condition, says when the mere subject is even raised.
One doctor (Fabrizio Rongione) is sympathetic to Anne’s wishes but declares himself flatly unable to help; another tricks her into taking embryo-strengthening medication. Only the backstreet abortion circuit awaits, but it’s only accessed by distressed, whispered word of mouth, and Anne has no direct contact to it. As the weeks pass by, Happening takes on the shape of a human thriller, with Anne’s options shutting down one by one. Once her belly begins to show, her life as she’s ambitiously constructed it is over. Yet Diwan feels no need to amplify the drama with an exaggerated sense of peril or some contrived subplots. It’s the general silence with which Anne’s life falls apart that makes the film more wrenching, as even the few people with whom she shares her plight mostly step back and urge her to let nature take its course. “Do as you please, it’s not our business,” counsels her best friend. With such tepid support from her peers, she hasn’t the heart to confide in elders, including her confused, concerned mother (Sandrine Bonnaire) or her doting, liberal-minded professor (Pio Marmaï) once her grades start to go alarmingly south. When she does find an ally in her social circle, it’s a jarringly unexpected one.
Happening is staged and performed in such a delicate register, meanwhile, that the escalating terror of Anne’s situation is all the more pronounced, eventually pivoting into a realm of wholly realism-based body horror. Even once Anne attempts to assert physical control over the embryo growing inside her, her body responds in ways she can’t anticipate or manage: Three especially tough, visceral scenes — shot candidly but not exploitatively — form a vivid cautionary tale for the dangers of unsafe abortions. They’re no less horrifying, however, than the repeated occasions on which Anne is told — usually by men — to stop fighting and surrender her body to the law. Restrained but never recessive on screen, Vartolomei carries this demanding lead role with tightly squared shoulders and a brave face that looks poised to crumple at any given second. There’s a jittery, insistent sense of fight to Anne that only just keeps her growing air of desperation in check. Diwan and cinematographer Laurent Tangy intimately scrutinize her face for signals of changing impulse or sudden stabs of pain, but only rarely cast her in shadow. Visually, Happening is characterized by cool spring light and blushing pastel tones, a pretty if cruel reminder of an outside world heedless to our heroine’s despair. Unflinching and tightly coiled, Happening is a terribly lonely journey of bodily control told through toughness, compassion, and quiet devastation.
Happening screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. IFC Films will release it on May 6.