Audrey Diwan’s Happening, which premiered at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival and screened in the Spotlight section of Sundance earlier this year, feels contemporary and immediate despite being set in 1963. The story of Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) — a promising student of literature seeking an illegal abortion — unfolds with meticulous craft and exacting rhythm. Using the weeks of Anne’s pregnancy like chapter markers, an effect that intensifies the sense of urgency, Diwan forges an incredible collaborative partnership with Vartolomei, who appears in every scene.
Based on Annie Ernaux’s 2000 book L’événement, Diwan’s adaptation, which she co-wrote with Marcia Romano (Anne Berest also receives a credit), has been regularly discussed by American film critics in the context of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this past June. Surely, a film as well-made as Happening would be noticed no matter the current climate related to the politics of abortion, but Diwan’s movie takes on additional layers of meaning and significance given the recent turn of events.
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Diwan approaches Anne’s dilemma with a series of realizations and obstacles that simultaneously frighten the protagonist and sharpen her resolve. Following the moment that Anne’s pregnancy is confirmed, she faces a series of rapidly closing doors. Telling her parents is out of the question (the character’s mother is played by the legendary Sandrine Bonnaire). Anne’s closest friends distance themselves, a doctor tricks her into taking a prenatal supplement, an acquaintance pressures her for sex because “there’s no risk.” Anne’s frustrations underline a physician’s sober warning: “Anyone who helps you can end up in jail.”
Happening will remind viewers of Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always for the way in which both films present the practical challenges faced by women seeking abortion care. Many making those comparisons, including Shirley Li and Natalia Winkelman, also note a significant difference between the two movies: Anne ultimately navigates the frustrating process without a support system, and certainly without the kind of character portrayed by Talia Ryder in Hittman’s film.
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Another point of departure for Happening is Diwan’s choice to not only recognize, but also fully validate, female sexual agency and pleasure. Many narratives that deal with abortion inadvertently perpetuate the trope that an accidental or unwanted pregnancy be read as a kind of punishment or consequence (equating sex with a lack of morals), no matter how the male partner may be depicted. Happening rejects that entire premise in a manner that, courtesy of two scenes in particular, feels almost radical.
Happening is filled with tight images of the central character’s expressive face. Diwan keeps cinematographer Laurent Tangy’s camera close to Anne, which serves as another reminder of Vartolomei’s remarkable skill as performer. Often hovering just over her shoulder, or following close as she enters a phone booth or pleads with her teacher, the intimacy is at times almost too much to bear. The effect, of course, is one of the ways Diwan tethers the viewer to the specificity of Anne’s journey. Among other things, that proximity concentrates the film’s most harrowing moments, which Diwan stages with unflinching honesty.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.