- Movie Rating -

Happening (2021)

| May 9, 2022

Audrey Diwan’s French drama Happening arrives in the United States at the very moment when the SCOTUS leak has led to raging protests over the possibility of overturning the historic Roe vs. Wade decision, giving individual states the right to control and even ban abortions, which, for the past 48 years, have remained legal.  If art has the ability to speak with a clear voice about our current reality, there could be no better evidence.  Diwan’s film is an emotional drama that is just engaging enough for us to get involved but just spare enough for us to see the issue of illegal abortion with all of its unsparing reality.

The connective tissue of this film is, for me, not just the current protests but on something that has come before.  Early last year I had declared Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always to be the best film of 2020.  That film, about the modern-day frustration of an underage girl travelling outside of New York with a friend in order to procure an abortion, stayed on my mind for days and weeks after, not just in terms of abortion as an issue but as a reality, an often grim reality for a young woman whose sexual experience can be not only frightening but dangerous.

Happening doesn’t stray from that path, but it shifts the focus to another time.  The earlier film took place in the present, but Diwan’s film takes place in France in the early 1960’s so you can already imagine that the social and legal roadblocks standing in the protagonist’s way are built up like a fortress.  The times are not a-changin’ here, however, and the moment is captured without the trappings of the usual social drama taking place in the past.  Diwan’s camera evokes the early 60s without banging us over the head with dressy historical details – yes, there’s rock and roll and phone booths, but the point is for the movie to feel somewhat contemporary, an unspoken reminder that in 60 years a young woman’s lot hasn’t changed all that much.

The young woman in question is Anne, played in a strikingly good performance by 23 year-old Anamaria Vartolomei, a college literature student from a middle-class family whose future is wide open, but who sees all possible doors closing when she finds herself pregnant.  Stranded and alone in her condition, she has no choices whether she keeps the baby or not.  Being a single mother in France in the early 1960s surely means nothing jobs, little pay and a lifetime of hardship for herself and her child.  Abortion is spoken about in a whisper, but only to remind her that it is patently illegal and jail time is harsh.  Yes, there are methods but finding one means traversing a network of people, any one of which could turn you in for merely suggesting it.

Anne’s isolation is created by the film’s production design.  Much of the film is shot in hallways, doctor’s offices and cramped living quarters.  Diwan’s camera pushes in close so that we spend a lot of time alone with Anne’s thought process.  Her solitude is deafening.  There is no one she can turn to.  Abortion is such a social stigma that her friends quickly turn the subject away even when she tries to whisper it.  Her doctors (who are all men) won’t hear the word for legal reasons but they are not uncaring.  They understand but their hands are tied (though one makes a shocking betrayal).  Their careers could be destroyed by even having the conversation.

Through careful dialogue and the constant reminders that time is making her condition less and less possible to abort, Happening takes on the pacing of a low-level dramatic thriller.  Time is running out, blind alleys are frequent and Anne’s belly is getting harder and harder to hide.  Eventually, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  She meets a woman who can “help” but the scene isn’t constructed with comfort and joy – actually quite the opposite, and here is where Happening departs from Never Rarely Sometimes Always in that we are in the room to experience what the protagonist is going through.  With the earlier film, it was only suggested.  That’s not a criticism because while both films were about a similar situation, the agenda was different.  The aim of the earlier film was to expose the violent sexual world that Autumn (the film’s hero) had experienced.  This film is much more about the closed doors that are preventing Anne from controlling her own destiny, and the back-alley that she is forced into to get there.

Of course, because this is a French film, the content is much more graphic.  Director Diwann spares us the physical details until the very end.  Without giving too much away, there is one shot late in the film that left me shaking but it was entirely necessary for me to understand the weight of what Anne was going through and the ramifications of the decisions that she was forced to make.  This is the story of a time in which women (especially young women) were not allowed any autonomy over their own bodies or their own destinies and the shocking revelation of that one image is born of a result of having been pushed to make certain decisions for themselves.

So, with that, we can draw a straight line from that story being told here to the protests taking place out there.  Diwann draws a line of giving us a portrait of restraining and constraining young people by law and by social stigma.  What forces a person into a back alley?  What is the social landscape that makes the back alley necessary?  Who makes that decision?  And what does it mean for people like Anna?  This is one of the year’s most important films.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.