It is 1963, and French student Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is just starting to stretch her wings as an independent woman. Studying literature at a public university in Rouen, she is the no-nonsense straight-A striver in a trio that includes the flirty Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) and the quiet Hélène (Luàna Barjrami). Anne can expound authoritatively on the poetry of Victor Hugo and Louis Aragon, but she also likes to hit the student’s café with her friends, where she dances to rockabilly and feigns insouciance toward the handsome firefighters across the room. The national upheaval of May 1968 is years away, and a kiss of midcentury naiveté lingers in the air: Anne is 23 years old, but she and her friends still drink Coca-Cola and giggle girlishly when whispering about their desires.
A dark-veined anxiety is scratching insistently at the back of Anne’s mind, however, and she dares not share this fear with even her closest confidants. The audience gets an inkling of her situation when, alone in her dorm room, she examines her spotless underwear and underlines her frustration in her diary (“Still nothing!”). It’s at this moment that director Audrey Diwan’s feature Happening declares its intentions with portentous on-screen text: “3 WEEKS.” The film continues to mark time in this way, a reverse countdown ticking off the weeks until Anne’s future life of promise collapses into one of obligation and resentment. The Veil Law that legalized abortion in France is more than a decade in the future, but Anne has no intentions of carrying this pregnancy to term. “I’d like a child one day,” she succinctly explains, “but not instead of a life. I could hate the kid for it.” So: One way or another, she is resolved to obtain an abortion.
For American viewers, facing the imminent gutting of Roe v. Wade along with five decades of reproductive rights, it can be tempting to view Diwan’s superbly constructed sophomore feature as one of sudden and disquieting relevance in our current political moment. However, Happening’s emotional and thematic potency stems from its timelessness, not from its serendipitous significance for a specific audience. Based on the eponymous autobiographical novel by celebrated French author Annie Ernaux, Diwan’s film emphasizes that such events happened within living memory, and in so-called liberal Western democracies, no less. Abortion was a felony in France for centuries, prosecuted with a cruel enthusiasm that gave the lie to national professions of liberté and égalité. As depicted in Story of Women (1988), an abortionist named Marie-Louise Giraud was actually guillotined by Vichy France in 1943. (If this seems like the distant past, consider this cinematic point of reference: Mike Leigh, director of the acclaimed 2005 British abortion drama Vera Drake, had already been born when Giraud was executed.) These things happened. These things are happening. These things will happen again.
The 21st century has already been blessed with two superlative dramas about young women seeking abortions in places hostile to such ambitions: Christian Mungui’s Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), and Eliza Hittman’s recent Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020). However, where those features were focused on female friendship and solidarity in the face of oppression, Happening takes pains to emphasize Anne’s utter isolation once her diagnosis is confirmed. Slut-shaming whispers begin to slither around the school, the dorm showers become a stage for sanctimonious bullying, and even her best friends react with none-of-my-business shock when she reveals her aims. Doctors – all of them men – treat her with condescension, when they’re not trying to outright deceive her about her medication. When she confides in her solitary male platonic friend (Kacey Motte Klein), he uses it as an excuse to pry into her sex life and make aggressive advances. She has no illusions about discussing her plight with her parents, working-class provincials from a village where motherhood and factory work are the only viable options for a young woman. It would break their hearts to puncture their fantasy of her as their well-behaved golden child, bound for bigger and better things.
Compared to many abortion dramas, Happening is a harshly straightforward film, at least in terms of its plot. There is no flashy story hook to complicate Anne’s already-terrifying situation: She is a woman in need of an abortion, but she cannot obtain one legally. Increasingly desperate, she gingerly questions friends and acquaintances, looking for any kind of lead on a reputable underground expert who handles such matters, often speaking in euphemisms to maintain plausible deniability. She appeals to the one-night stand who is half responsible for her current condition, but he is clueless and defensive, more concerned with his reputation than with Anne’s well-being. She pages through gynecology and obstetrics textbooks at the school library, furtively looking over her shoulder – for what exactly is unclear, but paranoia is warranted when even a suspicious miscarriage can land a woman in prison for 20 years.
Co-adapted by Diwan and Marcia Romano, Happening is supported by the twin pillars of smart, understated writing and Vartolomei’s superb performance. The film follows Anne’s viewpoint closely, obliging the viewer to feel the walls closing in around her as the weeks rush by all too quickly and the physical signifiers of her pregnancy become increasingly difficult to conceal. Vartolomei delivers a masterful, remarkably reserved portrayal, doing more with her wide eyes and dark, animated brows than most actors can achieve with pages of dialogue. Diwan knows precisely how to use her lead actress’ expressive countenance for maximum effect. She often relies on shallow focus to keep the audience’s attention on Anne during conversations with her parents, classmates, and strangers. We watch her as she listens, hyper-alert for indications of sympathy or antipathy, mentally calculating the risks: Do they know? Should I tell them? Would they help?
Unsurprisingly for a French arthouse film, Happening features a substantial amount of nudity, but it sharply illustrates how different such imagery can feel when it is in the hands of a woman director whose approach is matter-of-fact and uncolored by prurient intent. Diwan’s feature regards women’s bodies with a refreshing frankness, portraying them in all their blotchy, gooey, imperfect glory. The film’s two abortion sequences – one self-performed, and one facilitated by an underground abortionist – are harrowing but also intimate. (A comparison to the more sterile, horror-movie approach to abortion in Mryoslav Slaboshpytskiy’s 2014 crime thriller The Tribe is instructive.) Here the muscular brilliance of Diwan’s direction is strikingly apparent: When Anne attempts to abort the embryo herself on her dorm-room floor, the camera holds on the protagonist’s anguished grimaces as she blindly and painfully feels her way around her own uterus. When Anne later turns to a cagey woman (Anna Mouglalis) who specializes in such black-market procedures, Diwan instead shoots the scene over Anne’s shoulder, focusing on the abortionist’s stern face and quick, efficient actions.
No one who is stridently anti-abortion is likely to be convinced by Happening, which takes it as a given that the draconian restrictions on Anne’s bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom are morally repugnant. Yet it would be simplistic to characterize Diwan’s feature as a work whose only ambition is to preach to the pro-choice choir: The film is too deftly composed, too richly empathic towards its protagonist, too sensitive to the nuances of French society. (Note the twitch of rural, working-class self-loathing that winds through Anne’s journey, subtly complicating her choices and relationships.) It’s apparent that Diwan perceives an enduring vitality in this true story of a woman’s fight to outmaneuver a repressive, misogynistic system. For some viewers, Happening will provoke the questions, “Why yet another abortion story, and why now?” Fortunately, the film also provides the answers: As the world gets darker and tougher for birthing bodies, unflinching stories about what’s at stake will only become more precious and more powerful. Happening is an exceptional example of just such a story.
The Happening opens in select local theaters on May 13.