Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a brilliant Literature student. She’s at the top of her class, deep in her studies, and ready to pass her exams. She has a bright future ahead of her. All of that slips away in an instant when she discovers that she’s pregnant. It’s unplanned and unwanted. But this is not just a disruption of her academic and social life. This is France in 1963. An abortion is not only illegal, it’s punishable with prison time. It’s something so taboo that no one, not a professor, a doctor, or even her friends, are comfortable talking about, not even as a joke. Her best friends, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) are afraid to get involved, the latter even detaching herself by claiming it’s not her business.
Happening may touch on a familiar, sensitive subject, but with the recent disturbing setbacks on abortion laws and women’s rights, the film’s demand in showing Anne alone in her plight is all the more painful and urgent. Writer and director Audrey Diwan has created a film so stressful and visceral, it joins the best of the best every year that demonstrates the medium’s power of empathy.
Most of the intensity comes from how cinematographer Laurent Tangy shoots Anne’s story. The aspect ratio is tighter, and most scenes resort to handheld camerawork, which create an immediate, dire effect. We follow Anne everywhere she goes, from her dorm showers to a small phone booth where she desperately tries to reach someone to help her. It’s an invasive amount of access to the character, treaded carefully so as to never fall into melodrama. Though Diwan’s directing style may feel cold and distant, it’s a visual strategy that serves the story well. Based on French writer Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel of the same name, Happening is not so much a film with commentary on its mind, even though it’s clearly pro-choice. It’s not here to inform us. It’s not a call to action. It plays like a truthful, social-realist account of this one woman’s experience, in a similar vein as a Dardennes film.
This aesthetic also allows so much of the film’s pressure and distress to come from the performances. Vartolomei is astounding as Anne, capable of revealing a torrent of emotions just from her large doe eyes. She effortlessly pulls you into Anne’s headspace. Again and again, the script introduces possible alleyways that could bring her one step closer to terminating her pregnancy, only to have them slip. None of the supporting characters, especially the men, and especially the man who put her in this situation, are going to be allies. It makes the second act of the film to be predictably upsetting. We are constantly reminded that Anne is alone. She has nobody. We can see it on her face every time she realizes it. But she pushes through. Vartolomei captures the bitterness, the frustration, the dread, but most of all, the determination to keep going. But the script describes it best using one line: “I’ll manage.”
The more Happening moves along, the more terrifying it becomes. With text appearing on screen, telling us how many weeks we are into Anne’s pregnancy, the anticipation of the film’s climax becomes more and more unbearable. By the time we arrive at the last thirty minutes, we are all holding our breath for Anne, and boy, do Diwan and Vartolomei deliver. With a camera that often sits and watches, uninterrupted, the finale of Happening is an absolute harrowing experience, shot so truthfully that relies on context and situation to shock. At this point, we understand that the danger is not just whether or not Anne will be prosecuted. Forget that. We are worried if she’s going to make it out alive.
In the past years, we’ve had films that sensitively tackle the subject of abortion like Vera Drake, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and more recently, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. It’s incredible how a film like Happening can come along, feel completely different from the others that came before it, and still incite such an intense reaction.
At one point in the film, Anne’s male professor asks her if her grades have been slipping because she was “ill,” to which she responds it’s “an illness that strikes only women and turns them into housewives.” It’s a line that struck me. Abortion is not just about someone like Anne; it’s also very much about the people around her. Because if we are going to talk about abortions, we need to be candid in what the experience is like, to understand why women need allies and why no one should ever go through something like this alone.
Guided by truthful direction and a phenomenal lead performance, Happening is a full-on heart-in-your-throat cautionary tale, a stark portrait of compassion being overpowered by law, forcing people to fend for themselves. It’s a physically and emotionally draining experience that must be seen at least once. The fact that these events in 1963 still feel relevant today goes to show how universal of a struggle abortion is and how we still have a long way to go.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Happening will be released in the U.S. on May 6, 2022 from IFC Films.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute | photo by IFC Films