In recent years, topics and conversations surrounding abortion have become more present and progressive in the mainstream media, specifically in cinema. Films such as Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant, while vastly different in tone, tackle the frustrating reality when it comes to women making choices about their own bodies - and the lengths they must go to in order to earn that choice. The latest addition to this category, and arguably the most harrowing depiction so far, is HAPPENING.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, who had her own experience with abortion, the film follows Anne, an academic 23-year-old student attending a conservative school in France in 1963. Pressure mounts on Anne with her final exams coming up, as her parents have high expectations and she intends to continue her studies. However, Anne’s world is turned upside down when she discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t want to keep the baby, but abortion is still illegal in France, and anyone who undergoes, executes or assists the procedure could go to jail. With no help from her family, friends, doctors or the baby’s father, Anne is alone and forced to take matters into her own hands.
Director Audrey Diwan has created a restrained yet brutal film. It is not groundbreaking in its subject matter or point of view, but in the way it delivers it. The conversation around abortion is seen as taboo by everyone around Anne - no one dares to even mention it, with fear of the consequences. Even Anne’s friends refuse to be associated with her situation the moment they find out she wants to have one. In one of the most stomach churning moments of the film, Anne learns that her doctor tricked her into taking embryo strengthening medication, saying it would make her menstruate.
It’s difficult at first to guess when the film is actually set. There are no phones or computers, and the girls’ outfits aren’t indicative of any particular time period, nor the way they speak. Little details slowly reveal its setting - the boys wearing suits and ties, the Elvis-inspired music playing at dances, and the revelation that our young protagonist was born in 1940. This can make the earlier parts of the film slightly jarring to watch, and challenging to contextualise. However, that may just be the point. This story is frighteningly timely and relevant to today’s society, with abortion still being condemed and banned in certain countries, including states in the U.S. Diwan wants to remind us that some women are still denied the choice almost sixty years after the film is set.
The narrative is cleverly structured through each week of Anne’s pregnancy, which creates a ticking time bomb and sense of unease. It plays out like a psychological thriller with the use of handheld and close-up shots, claustrophobic atmosphere and minimalistic but alarming music. The audience is very much in Anne’s mindset. The first half is definitely slower than the second, which could be on purpose, as she has time on her side before things become urgent. While mood is a significant vehicle to create discomfort for the audience, so are the film’s extremely graphic scenes. It’s not always easy to watch and can be quite hard to stomach at times. When Anne is unable to find someone to help her, she attempts to carry out her own abortion, and later have one illegally. Diwan isn’t afraid to show us the ugliness and brutality of it all, and it’s certainly a lot. While a portion of it does feel excessive, it also highlights the catastrophic consequences when abortions aren’t performed professionally and safely.
HAPPENING is an incredibly well made and important film that is simultaneously subtle and bold. Leading actress Anamaria Vartolomeni is stunning in this challenging role, and Diwan should be applauded for approaching this subject with such empathy and grit.
HAPPENING is playing in select cinemas from April 14, 2022.