Happening (L’événment) Review – An Indelible and Absolutely Necessary Film

Although director Audrey Diwan’s magnificent film Happening is set in France in 1963, the story of a woman trying to regain her life in the face of an unwanted pregnancy has a timeless feel to it. For a growing number of states in the US access to abortion is becoming near impossible with legislature trying to overturn Roe vs Wade. For many the realities of an earlier period of the 20th Century may indeed be the realities they face in the 21st Century.

Adapting Anne Ernaux’s semi-autobiographical novel Happening is the story of Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) a bright young literature student whose life becomes a nightmare after she finds out that she has fallen pregnant. In France in 1963 abortion was illegal and women who sought it risked at best a prison sentence, or at worst death from backyard abortion providers. Desperate to keep studying, Anne has no intention of keeping the foetus. With the father more or less out of the picture she suffers her pregnancy alone. When she does try to reach out for support she is shunned by her friends Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) and to a lesser extent Hélène (Luàna Bajrami). Worst still, when she seeks help from a male colleague, Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein) he interprets it as an opportunity to have sex with her since there is no risk as she’s already pregnant.

Turned away by doctors who range from telling her to accept what is done to actually prescribing her embryo enhancing drugs, Anne is very much alone. Unable, or unwilling to confide in her mother Gabrielle (Sandrine Bonnaire) Anne is left only with a clock counting down the weeks of her pregnancy and an increasing desperation. She’s beginning to fail classes and her interpersonal relationships are wrecked. It is to Anamaria Vartolomei’s outstanding ability to convey interior turmoil with compelling results that the audience can never look away at Anne’s dilemma.

Happening never strays into the territory of melodrama. There’s a harshness to it that dares the viewer to continue on Anne’s horrific journey. There are scenes that are confronting and heartbreaking to witness yet they are vital to understanding what Anne is willing to risk ensuring that she has a future. She admits that she could never love a child that she is forced to have and who would rob her of a future. Anne’s reticence shouldn’t be misconstrued as coldness; rather it is a reality that many woman have contemplated when considering what pregnancy means to them.

Anamaria Vartolomei is fearless in her depiction of Anne. The point of view rarely shifts from her and her flaws and fears humanise her predicament. Fiercely independent, intelligent, and rebellious, Anne is a proto feminist who finds that her contemporaries, despite their lip-service, are far more conservative than she is. Her independence carries her through her experiences, but it doesn’t erase her isolation and loneliness.

Diwan makes no apologies for the claustrophobic and horrific parts of her film. Happening is not easy viewing and is explicit in its depiction of Anne’s trauma. There were moments where I felt overwhelmed by what I was witnessing, but it was essential I bore witness to the truth of what occurred. Happening is a multi-feted award-winning film and it deserves to be. It’s a reminder of the bad old times, but also a warning for the future. We must never forget that women deserve reproductive freedom, nor should we forget the struggles of those who fought for it before laws slowly changed. Happening is an indelible film and an absolutely necessary one – its power cannot be understated.

Director: Audrey Diwan

Cast: Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Luàna Bajrami

Writers: Marcia Romano, Audrey Diwan, (Based on the novel by Annie Ernaux)

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