The initial idea for Audrey Diwan’s Happening (L’Événement) came from a famous French autobiographical novel, written by Annie Ernaux in 2000 about her own illegal abortion in 1964. Up until 1974, prison penalty awaited any girl who attempted to terminate her pregnancy, and was that, of course, dependent on whether or not she’d survive the clandestine procedures. A very dark period of French history indeed, and also subject matter of utmost importance, illegal abortions are still a necessary evil sought by many women around the globe. Happening is Diwan’s sophomore feature, after the 2019 release of her debut Losing It (Mais vous êtes fous) which did not fare well, according to the French box office. Now, Diwan opts for a bolder project and while her intentions are entirely just, also her insistence on making a piece of carnal cinema that would peel the layers of taboo clinging to the topic, Happening does more disservice to this bold approach, no matter the good intentions implied.
Anne, played by Anamaria Vartolomei, is 23 years old and her working-class background sets her apart from many of her peers. As a result, she’s already alienated by her university experience and in particular, by the social aspects of it. Vartolomei is splendid in her first feature lead role, and her graciously composed posture becomes a stronghold for Laurent Tangy’s insistently stylised cinematography. Indeed, the over-the-shoulder camera sticks with Anne through every second of her unplanned pregnancy, following her as she traverses familiar and unknown places, presumably too proud to plead for help but nevertheless, she does so. As time goes by and no solution is found, Anne finds herself ostracized not only by the girls who actively seek to defame her, but also by her judgemental girlfriends. The mere idea of female kinship dissipates, and Diwan uses its undoing to condemn the sociological factors that play into victim-blaming and slut-shaming as a whole. Only one scene at the film’s very end manages to patch things up and suggest a future of female solidarity but that does not make up for not dissecting women’s internalised misogyny in the first place.
Amidst strict morale and bourgeois attitudes, the claustrophobic setting of Happening perpetuates the atmosphere of doom impending on a young woman’s life, when she’s forced to go to extremes (to lose: a fetus or her life) in order to pursue her life as planned (to gain: a career). Grounding these abstract struggles into a corporeality may be the strongest bet for this film. Diwan’s engrossment with the physical changes in Anne’s body, the potential giveaways of her disposition, are often entwined with a heightened libido which the film rightfully promotes and attempts to normalize. However, there are images which are shockingly graphic, procedures which the audience is asked to endure, to share with Anne, and this of course is not a new trope. Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s own political drama about illegal abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, marked a watershed moment for Eastern European cinema and its politics of representation, that now aligned with the peak of New French Extremity.
But the point here is not to praise the name of a male filmmaker who ‘did it better’. Having in mind the context of affective, carnal studies of the abortion drama, can actually help someone still struggling to digest the events in Happening. The issue lies with the lack of characterisation. The script is rather opaque when it comes to more than Anne’s motivations (to pursue her studies), it spends little to no time on her actual psychological traits – her interactions seem devoid of meaning, her thrust towards a man or a girlfriend often irrelevant. However controlled and committed Vartolomei may be as an actress, the emphasis on Anne’s physiognomy covers her in an impenetrable shell.
Even more, it acts as a detachment, turning her into an empty (but suffering) shell. In this way, the carnal treatment of the film weighs too much on Anne’s decisions and predetermines the way she carries herself throughout the film. By depriving Anne of personality and by reducing her to a walking conflict – and this may very well work way better in an autobiographical novel than on film – Diwan unintentionally robs the viewer out of the deep empathy which is necessary for the film’s political urgency.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.