Happening (L'Événement) ★★★1/2
Availability: Showing in theaters in major US cities and recently expanded to more (including Rochester, NY’s Little Theaters); widely available streaming in Europe; see JustWatch here for future streaming availability in the US.
A Cautionary Tale
Anne Duchesne is a no-nonsense, highly motivated, fiercely independent young woman, studying literature in 1963 France with the goal of becoming a professor. When her instructor, concerned about her poor classroom performance in recent weeks, asks if she has been ill, she replies, “Yes, with the disease that strikes only women…and turns them into housewives.”
It's a line that one might expect to find in Betty Friedan’s best-seller, “The Feminine Mystique,” published that same year. Like Friedan, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a feminist in a pre-feminist world, the closing years of the “long 1950s,” when many women married by 22 and looked forward to having babies and being financially supported by their husbands.
Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), far right,
has more concerns than her girlfriends, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquérois), far left, and Hélène (Luàna Bajrami), center.
Anne perceives motherhood and her career as incompatible at age 23.
The ”disease” to which Anne refers is, of course, pregnancy, the result, in this case, of a dalliance with a cute guy from Bordeaux who wants nothing to do with a child and is concerned more with his friends’ impression of Anne than with her dilemma. Anne perceives motherhood and her career as incompatible at age 23, and she wants to have an abortion. Abortions are illegal in 1963 France, and the prohibition is far-reaching: anyone—doctor or friend—assisting in the process of securing an abortion is subject to criminal charges.
It's a prescient film, given the recently leaked draft opinion by United States Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito that, if adopted by the Court, would overturn the 50-year-old abortion protections of the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.
"Happening" is not a debate between a right-to-life perspective and Anne’s pro-choice views.
“Happening” is not even-handed. As in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (2020), the film is not about the ethics of abortion. It’s not a debate between a right-to-life perspective and Anne’s pro-choice views. (Older insightful films on abortion include Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” ), which looks at the attempt to find an abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania, and “Vera Drake” , Mike Leigh’s empathetic take on a back-room abortion provider, starring Imelda Staunton.)
Indeed, to describe Anne’s feelings as “pro-choice” is to project her decision into a later era, when that phrase existed. She’s interested solely in her own life, her own needs, and how having a child would keep her from being the professional woman she intends to be. She wants a child, just not now, Anne tells a physician, “not instead of a life.”
Fabrizio Rongione, as a doctor
who is sympathetic but tells Anne
she must "accept" her pregnancy.
The doctors she consults are either too afraid to help or are strongly anti-abortion, even as she pleads “Do something”….“Help me.”
“Happening” is Anne’s story, and the story of her isolation in a world of back-alley procedures. Director and co-writer Audrey Diwan, who won The Golden Lion (Best Film) at the Venice Film Festival, has deftly adapted French writer Annie Ernaux’s (born Annie Duchesne) 2000 autobiographical novel, “L'Événement.” Anne’s parents are of another social class (she appears to have only two outfits, both blue), proprietors of a local bar, and well-meaning, but not people who would understand. The doctors she consults are either too afraid to help or are strongly anti-abortion, even as she pleads “Do something”….“Help me.”
Anne has intimate girlfriends (they share chewed gum), who abandon her when it comes to terminating her pregnancy. One of her two close friends, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquérois), is out front about exploring her own sexuality; the other, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami, the maid Sophie in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” ), confesses to having had a serious affair and notes that only luck kept her from becoming pregnant. Neither can, or does, give Anne the assistance she needs. They are too fearful of the consequences, which could include prison. Among the young men who are friends, one treats Anne’s pregnancy as an opportunity to try to have sex with her.
We see only glimpses of the procedures Anne endures (image left), though even then some will turn their heads rather than watch.
Her plight—her frustration, her anxiety, her anguish, even an impulse to suicide—is presented in segments that mark her pregnancy: 4 weeks, 5 weeks, 7 weeks, 10 weeks. The clock ticks, and there’s no savior in the wings.
The pregnancy and its termination are interior, personal “happenings.” The era is pre-internet, pre-social media. She’s on her own.
“Happening” is a small, carefully crafted film; it foregoes manipulative music as well as complex discussions of the dilemma facing Anne. It’s about her interior experience; there’s no Hollywood drama, no applause scenes at the end. We see only glimpses of the procedures Anne endures, though even then some will turn their heads rather than watch. Instead, Vartolomei, a young Romanian-French actress, expressively conveys Anne’s physical and emotional trauma. The pregnancy and its termination are interior, personal “happenings.” The era is pre-internet, pre-social media. She’s on her own.
Above, Anna Mouglalis as the back-room abortionist, who is neither empathetic nor despicable; she's simply another step in Anne's search for a solution.
Anne is nothing if not determined, and she finds a way, or ways. Forthright and honest, the film is an unflinching look at what it meant for young women of a certain social class, without resources or support, to obtain an abortion—in an era today often recalled with a misplaced nostalgia. Instead, “Happening” comes at a disquieting moment. The specter of criminalizing abortion—and the chilling, silencing, isolating effect of the laws that would do so—is no longer anachronistic or a decree from an Iron Curtain state. “Happening” is a cautionary tale for our times.
Date: 2021 France; May 6, 2022 United States
Director: Audrey Diwan
Starring: Anamaria Vartolomei, Louise Orry-Diquérois, Luàna Bajrami, Fabrizio Rongione, Anna Mouglalis.
Other Awards: 13 wins, including the Golden Lion (Best Film) at the Venice Film Festival, and 16 nominations to date
Languages: French, subtitled in English
Runtime: 100 minutes