Happening review: a harrowing and deeply empathetic story of unwanted pregnancy

The new film HAPPENING looks at reproductive rights by transporting us to the past, to 1960s France

Last weekend, Saturday Night Live used its opening sketch to skewer the leaked Supreme Court opinion set to overturn Roe v. Wade. SNL’s angle was to take us back to 13th century England, because Justice Alito cites law from that time period in the leaked draft. The sketch highlights just how backwards and discriminatory so much of society was then, pointing out the obvious need to change outdated laws over time. It’s a pretty creative and funny take on what amounts to a devastating piece of news.

In a similar—though decidedly less comedic—way, the new film Happening looks at reproductive rights by transporting us to the past. Taking place in France in 1963, the film follows Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a student with a promising future whose life is thrown into uncertainty by an unwanted pregnancy. Because of the time and place she lives, the options to terminate pregnancy are almost non-existent, and none of them are safe.

The film, which is directed by Audrey Diwan and based on the autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, drops us into Anne’s reality and takes us along as she faces obstacle after obstacle. After the initial shock of learning she’s pregnant, Anne sees multiple doctors, asks trusted friends for help, and even attempts, in one heartbreaking scene, to induce miscarriage. All of this she does in secret, while attempting to maintain her social life and academic performance, though these begin to deteriorate as time goes on.

Happening won the prestigious Golden Lion in 2021, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and the film does an incredible job of putting us into Anne’s headspace. Most of the film’s runtime is spent ratcheting up the awful pressure and anxiety as Anne’s life and future begin to crumble before her eyes. Happening makes the case that lack of access to safe abortion is nothing short of horrific, and yet the filmmaking is full of grace and empathy. As challenging as much of the subject matter is, the film itself is not tortuous. The elegant cinematography, along with the vulnerable and compelling lead performance, elevate a story that could easily have fallen into “misery porn” territory. What we get is a deeply grounded and emotional look at a woman under the full weight of an oppressive system.

The setting in 1960s France is key to the film's plot
The setting in 1960s France is key to the film’s plot

There’s a remarkable moment near the film’s opening, in which Anne leads her friends (and the camera) from outside on a quiet street all the way to the dance floor in a loud and crowded party. This happens in a long, single take, with Anne looking back over her shoulder, beckoning us to follow her in. The screenplay smartly allows us plenty of time to see Anne attending parties, excelling in her studies, and generally loving her life and friends, before she learns of her pregnancy. In that way, we understand just what Anne is losing when her close friendships are tested and her once-bright academic future is thrown into doubt.

The story manages to cover a lot of ground, and does so organically. The failings and hypocrisy of the medical system are shown in great detail, with one of her doctors sympathetic to her situation but still unwilling to help for fear of going to jail. The screenplay also addresses the complicity of selfish men unwilling to take responsibility, from Anne’s former lover who offers only scorn when she needs support, to her close male friend who tries to exploit her when she’s most vulnerable.

Anamaria Vartolomei's performance as Anne is devstating and empathetic
Anamaria Vartolomei’s performance as Anne is devstating and empathetic
For safety, Anne must keep secrets from everyone, including her mother
For safety, Anne must keep secrets from everyone, including her mother

Also remarkable is how effective the film is at making us feel the very real social stigma associated with sex and pregnancy outside of wedlock at this time. Anne’s classmates almost exclusively offer judgment, and even her closest friends largely fail to show compassion. Another especially well-written moment comes early in the film. We’ve seen how close Anne is to her two friends Hélène and Brigitte, but after she learns of her pregnancy, a subtle shift takes place. She feels different, other, unable to engage with studies or romance or any of the things her friends care about. This is demonstrated beautifully in a scene where she joins her friends for a study session; they begin to recite grammatical charts in unison, but after a few moments Anne becomes out of sync with her chanting friends, creating an audible discord as she sits, distracted, with a vacant look on her face. Her friends seem not to notice.

Anne with friends Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro)
Anne with friends Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro)

A film like Happening would have felt appropriate to release at any point in the last 20 years, but with the recent news around Roe v. Wade, it feels almost supernaturally well-timed. I don’t know what will happen with the Supreme Court this year, but I can say I’m glad this film is coming out when it is. As divisive as reproductive rights are, there are still people who sit on the fence, uncomfortable fully embracing either side. One imagines that a deeply empathetic film like this could serve as a pretty effective argument for the need for access to safe abortion. And I’m happy to say Happening is currently playing in theaters here in central Arkansas, where I live, right in the middle of the Bible Belt.

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