Happening (now on Hulu) is director Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel about her attempts to obtain an abortion as a teenager in mid-century France. The procedure was illegal at the time, and the film debuted in 2022 just as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Roe vs. Wade abortion-rights ruling in an act of crass anti-progress. And so a film that functions as a period drama also works as a reminder of how a society can, then and still now, physically and mentally torture women. For that reason, it’s unyielding, and essential viewing.
HAPPENING: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: It’s the early 1960s. Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) and her closest friends, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) and Helene (Luana Bajrami) primp and dress for a night of dancing and meeting boys: Hair and makeup, a see-through shirt, a shorter skirt. Anne seems less outwardly concerned with sexual exploration; when a handsome young man sidles up alongside her and introduces himself as a firefighter, her first instinct is to ignore him and avoid eye contact. The girls attend a university-prep boarding school. Anne studies literature. Anne is a committed student. Anne lives in a dormitory with communal bathrooms and showers. Anne peers down into her underwear, then writes in her journal. 3 WEEKS, reads a subtitle.
She goes to the doctor, male, chilly and clinical, but not aggressively so. Is he sympathetic? Hard to tell. He asks if she’s sexually active. Never, she replies. Boyfriend? Never. He examines her. “You’re pregnant,” he says. “Do something,” she says. “You can’t ask me that… the law is unsparing,” he replies. It’s true. Anyone giving, receiving or aiding and abetting abortion faces prison. She tells no one. She peers over her shoulder in the library, hoping nobody sees her reading up on the science of pregnancy. She struggles to focus in class, and is called out in front of everyone by her teacher, male, chilly and clinical, but not aggressively so. Is he sympathetic? Hard to tell.
Subtitles mark the passage of weeks. Anne stares at her abdomen in the mirror. Is she starting to show? She asks a male classmate, Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein), for help, because he “knows a lot of girls,” and he initially seems sympathetic, but, again – hard to tell. We soon learn he’s not; he only sees her as an opportunity to have sex without the risk of becoming a father. In the shower room, she’s chastised by bullies who notice her bump. She reveals her predicament to Brigitte and Helene, who back away from her pleas to help her procure an abortion. They don’t really talk to her anymore after that. She sees a different doctor. She visits her parents but doesn’t dare share. She sterilizes a knitting needle with a lighter and lies on the floor and props up her legs.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The similarly horrific emotional gutting that was 2007 Romanian realist masterwork 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
Performance Worth Watching: Vartolomei is a revelation. “Bravery” doesn’t begin to define her performance. There’s such vital earnestness, truth and unfettered humanity in her depiction of Anne, it seems impossible not to empathize with her.
Memorable Dialogue: Anne: “I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life.”
Sex and Skin: Prolonged graphic nudity and a realistic, unstylized sex scene.
Our Take: The closest thing Diwan and Marcia Romano’s screenplay comes to making a clear and direct assertion is when Anne’s doctor insists, “Miss, accept it. You have no choice.” No choice. No choice: The film’s only pointedly political statement, and it stands out for its critical laceration of a society, a system, designed to punish women by forcing them into domestic servitude or debilitating isolation. Anne’s story concisely and unflinchingly depicts the latter – she can’t escape judgment from her peers, physicians, instructors, even her dearest friends. And so she becomes desperate, taking chances with the well-being of her body and mind, often in extended, unblinking sequences that clearly delineate her experiences not as melodrama or social allegory, but excoriating horror.
Diwan’s uncompromising method is realism, which makes Happening frequently grueling to watch. There are no merciful edits as she depicts Anne’s experiences before, during and after multiple abortion attempts. Anne’s physical and psychological pain fills the room. She has no personal liberty. She suffers alone.
Using handheld cameras, long takes and frequent closeups, Diwan never strays from Anne’s point-of-view. Vartolomei’s performance is often silent, but rivetingly complex; she shows the character’s refusal to compromise or apologize for who she is, or for her needs and desires. The film never passes judgment on her. It doesn’t wrestle with her past decisions, be they mistakes or otherwise (it even neatly addresses the question as to who the father is). It simply deals with the immediate here and now of her life during a time of sexual revolution and the turmoil churning in the darkness beneath it. Ultimately, Happening finds an inspiring through-line in Anne’s story via her steadfast commitment to herself, but the terror she feels is all too real.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Happening is unforgettable.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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