The theatrical release of Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” (L’Évènment, France, 2021) is most timely, given the current issue of the Supreme Court ready to rule on Roe v Wade. This is a powerful film.
By Jim Gilles
Opening in selected theatres this weekend is Audrey Diwan’s Happening (L’Évènment, France, 2021), a film about the “unspeakable” word “abortion” in early 1960s France. Adapted from Annie Ernaux’s eponymous novel, Happening looks back on her experience with abortion when it was still illegal in France in the 1960s. It’s a period film set in 1960s France, but the predicaments its desperate protagonist goes through to access an illegal and unsafe abortion might very well be the new, frightening American future, with the Supreme Court voting to overturn abortion rights and the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling. Some critics scratched their heads when Happening was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2021, but given the situation in the United States on this issue right now, the film is more than relevant. Among Diwan’s greatest feats with Happening is making a case not only for safe access to legal abortions, but also for true sexual freedom that dares to yearn for a world where slut-shaming is a thing of the past.
Currently Happening is playing at the Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles and will be at the Laemmle Theatres beginning this coming Friday.
The film is focused on Anne Duchesne, played by Anamaria Vartolomei in a quietly towering performance. She is a middle-class literature student who hopes for a long, healthy career in her field. But she is pregnant, alone and without choices. Working while mothering in 1963? Not an option. An abortion? In that French period, also impossible – unless, of course, she finds a fast and reliable in on a whispered-about illegal abortionist and hopes that the procedure is done by a medically sound someone and not a back-alley butcher. The film is structured by Anne’s continuing weeks of pregnancy, matter-of-factly in a fashion that brings to mind Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania, 2008).
Quickly, Anne finds that her situation is one of loneliness. There is no one she can talk to about her situation, as she is diagnosed as pregnant by the sympathetic university physician. Obviously, she cannot talk about something like this with her working-class father and mother (Sandrine Bonnaire). In one of the many revealing scenes of Happening, a friend of hers hastily wraps up the conversation when the topic of abortion gets as much as mentioned, without even knowing that Anne is pregnant. The young girl’s hesitation rings true. The slightest hint of suspicion, and people could have been facing real consequences in that era, like losing their jobs, their academic affiliations and even facing jail time. Doctors and professors that surround Anne are similarly under the gun regardless of their varying degrees of sympathy for her.
Anne’s doctor (Fabrizio Rongione) is extremely sympathetic of her situation, yet he scolds her nonetheless, reminding her that she can’t even talk to him about an abortion. Her best friend, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), more or less tells her the same thing, coldly adding that “it’s not our business.” They understand that her dream of being a writer would certainly die upon the birth of her child, and there’s an overwhelming aura of fear and apprehension that pervades every conversation about the topic. It’s as if even the word “abortion” is all but unspeakable, so they instead gently reinforce the lack of choice that she has in the matter.
Anne’s desperation becomes downright existential upon her realizing that no one in her inner circle is willing to help, so she continues to search for ways to follow through with her decision to have an abortion. Vartolomei, with her steely gaze and implacable demeanor, is never short of compelling, convincingly conveying the young woman’s prickly, tenacious nature and resounding inner strength. Yet she also exudes an underlying tenderness and sense of unease beneath this tough exterior, particularly as Anne’s situation becomes more tenuous.
Diwan marks each subsequent week of Anne’s pregnancy with intertitles, contributing to a rising tension as an uncertain point of no return quickly approaches. The intensity of this suspense is surpassed only by Anne’s alienation, not only from everyone around her, but also from her ever-changing body. But while the desperate measures that Anne takes are increasingly harrowing, including an attempted self-induced abortion that’s subtly but viscerally depicted.
The sleazy Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein), who hits on a pregnant Anne at one point, even going so far as to make the case that sex with her would have no consequences, initially refuses to help her. But he eventually changes his tune and links her to a back-alley abortionist, Madame Rivière (Anna Mouglalis). Later, one of Anne’s close friends, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami), also has something of a change of heart, admitting that she, too, had a summer fling, and that Anne’s situation made her realize that she was lucky to not have gotten pregnant. Happening uses these about-faces not as a means of suggesting that these characters have suddenly become enlightened, but rather to accentuate their contradictions.
As Anne’s situation closes in on her from all directions and her belly starts growing, Diwan dials up the film’s tension, intensified by chaptered segments that emphasize the alarming irreversibility of time. Throughout, she favors long takes over frantic edits, immersing the audience in Anne’s anguish, anxiety and even physical pain in a matter-of-fact style similar to that of the Dardenne brothers. At the center of the film, Anne arrives at a barebones home and submits her body to the care of a woman who performs illegal abortions to girls in need. Diwan shoots the sequence in one spine-tingling take, making one really feel both the sting and terror of Anne’s situation. Elsewhere, whenever she wants to underscore the vulnerability of Anne’s body, the filmmaker opts in for similar methods, elegantly tracking the action in slow, patient takes while focusing on the actor’s facial fluctuations. In a part that asks a lot of her, Vartolomei masters the art of silence, somehow managing to react, consider and protest, often without saying a single word.
The psychological turmoil and agonizing isolation that all of this puts Anne through lends Diwan’s film a gripping immediacy that’s further reinforced by its general avoidance of period details in its costumes and settings. As such, it manages the difficult task of speaking to our current moment, where women are increasingly facing hurdles to abortion access, without being didactic or preachy.