In 'Happening,' a riveting abortion drama

  • Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), left, and Gabrielle Duchesne (Sandrine Bonnaire) face a tough decision in "Happening."

    Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), left, and Gabrielle Duchesne (Sandrine Bonnaire) face a tough decision in "Happening." Courtesy of IFC Films

 
 
Updated 5/12/2022 6:17 AM

"Happening" -- ★ ★ ★

"Happening," Audrey Diwan's Golden Lion-winner at last year's Venice Film Festival, is set in 1963 France, but the period detail isn't prominent. Instead, it's an abortion tale that feels as though it could take place in many places, long ago or today.

 

It's filmed in square-like academy ratio, and it's as if the edges of the frame are closing in on Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a smart literature student -- maybe even a brilliant one; we see her define "anaphora" without hesitation -- who is shocked when a doctor informs her that she's pregnant.

This is 12 years before abortion would be legalized in France, and Anne's predicament is immediately urgent. "Do something," she tells the doctor, who replies that it's impossible, "the law is unsparing." For Anne, her apparently first sexual encounter threatens to derail her life just as it's getting started. She comes from a working-class background. Her parents -- and most of all Anne, herself -- have high expectations for her.

Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) considers going to extreme lengths in "Happening."
Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) considers going to extreme lengths in "Happening." - Courtesy of IFC Films

"I want to continue my studies," she tells another doctor. "It's essential for me."

Films from Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" to Eliza Hittman's "Never Sometimes Always Rarely" have captured the human toll of systems that give women little choice when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. What distinguishes "Happening," Diwan's second feature film, is, overwhelmingly, her and Laurent Tangy's tightly composed cinematography and Vartolomei's riveting, steely performance. To a remarkable degree, "Happening" is viscerally connected with its protagonist, closely detailing not just her navigation of social taboos and restrictions, but capturing her unapologetic determination. It's a movie about abortion, yes, but it's also a coming-of-age tale about a woman's resolve.

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"Happening" is based on the 2001 memoir by celebrated French author Annie Ernaux, who framed her '60s experience as it was recalled decades later by sifting through old journals and memories. Diwan's film has no such framework, instead preferring to stay rigorously close to Anne's experience as it's unfolding. Abortion is, to even her friends, an unspeakable subject; just the hint of promiscuity is enough to make her nearly an outcast. In one frightfully vulnerable scene, classmates confront her in the shower for being "loose" while they and she are naked.

For Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), her apparently first sexual encounter threatens to derail her life just as it's getting started in "Happening."
For Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), her apparently first sexual encounter threatens to derail her life just as it's getting started in "Happening." - Courtesy of IFC Films

It's a fittingly staged scene because, in "Happening," there's no intimacy or pleasure for Anne's body. It's a battleground. When she's asked for her reading of Louis Aragon's "Elsa at Her Mirror," Anne describes the poem's war references. And she, too, is in a kind of war, with seemingly no one on her side, desperate for help -- or at least for some honesty. Anne grows increasingly isolated, but also hardened and defiant. Diwan films her clinical encounters at length and, in a film where no one wants to say the truth out loud, "Happening" culminates in Anne holding back screams of pain because the walls are too thin.

• • •

Starring: Anamaria Vartolomei, Sandrine Bonnaire

Directed by: Audrey Diwan

Other: An IFC Films release. In theaters. Rated R for disturbing material/images, sexual content and graphic nudity. In French with subtitles. 100 minutes

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