Director: Audrey Diwan
Writers: Marcia Romano, Audrey Diwan, Annie Ernaux
Production: Rectangle Productions, France 3 Cinéma, Wild Bunch, Srab Films, Canal+, Ciné+, France Télévisions, La Région Île-de-France, Région Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC), Pôle Image Magelis, Département de la Charante, Palatine Étoile 18, Cofinova 17, Cofinova 16, Procirep
Distributor: Picturehouse Entertainment
Platform: Theatrical Release (Reviewed)
Release Date: Out Now!
The sub-section of films that properly focus on abortion isn’t exactly a large one. Yet, it’s an incredibly important topic, and one that recent release Happening puts a spotlight on. Adapted from the autobiographical Annie Ernaux novel of the same name, this film centres on main character Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a young woman studying literature in 1960s France who becomes unexpectantly pregnant. At the time abortion was illegal in France, and Happening follows Anne as she seeks a way out of this situation.
Early on, we get to know the sort of person Anne is; she’s smart, ambitious, and looked up to by her friends, shown as a prime candidate for University. We see her socialising, but the film doesn’t fall into predictable voyeuristic scenes where we viscerally how she got pregnant. That side is mainly implied, as it isn’t really the point. Any nudity is – in my opinion – well handled, only there to allow us more understanding of her life and/or state of mind.
After the early revelation of her pregnancy, the majority of Happening handles the fallout as Anne searches for various solutions. Over time, her studies, relationships, and health start to unravel – having a baby would hijack her academic plans, but abortion could lead to jail, leaving Anne in a high stress situation that also isolates her from others. Because of the groundwork those early scenes laid, it’s easy to empathise with her and feel how the various sources of pressure escalate over time.
Furthermore, Vartolomei is key to why this film works. She’s in practically every shot, and has a ferociously understated essence. It’s a kind of energy that’s very watchable, even during the darker moments. We know how intelligent and independent she is, so it increasingly hurts to see her worn down into someone almost unrecognisable, as her entire life becomes about finding a way out. Emphasizing this further is the choice to have a square aspect ratio for Happening, which creates an enclosed feeling. There’s a grainy, soft look to the film that transports you into the time period whilst keeping a very real atmosphere.
Speaking of… As the film gets towards the final act of the roughly hour-and-a-half runtime, I’ll warn you; it isn’t for the faint of heart. Happening is determined to show you the realities of the methods women were forced into by the outlawing of abortion, and the unrelenting long takes are tough viewing. For the plot and themes of this film, though, it feels necessary.
Abortion, and indeed the illegality of it in certain times and places, rarely gets represented in films in such a real way as this. Happening does not pull any punches, and frankly, nor should it. The potential issue with that is creating something extremely difficult to watch. Whilst this is the case in several scenes, the authentic feel – and phenomenal lead performance from Vartolomei – forges a connection that makes you invested to see it through. An eye-opening, gut-wrenching, and heartfelt piece of cinema.