In anticipation of the Supreme Court revisiting Roe v. Wade, the Sundance Film Festival made a bid in January 2022 to shape the discourse by selecting three features examining the polarizing topic of abortion. One of those films, Happening, has the uncanny timing to open on the same week that Politico published a leaked Supreme Court draft ruling, which portends the demise of the landmark 1973 case, making Happening’s story more important—and urgent—than ever.
Winner of the Venice Film Festival’s top prize in 2021, Happening serves as a chilling reminder of times before legalized abortion. Based on Annie Ernaux’s semi-autobiographical 2000 novel, the film unflinchingly recounts a 23-year-old student’s harrowing ordeal of terminating her pregnancy in 1963 France. Director-cowriter Audrey Diwan approaches the material with the cool detachment of a fly on the wall, resulting in an austere thriller in the vein of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which claimed the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize in 2007.
Anne Duchesne, as played by the stone-faced Anamaria Vartolomei, doesn’t readily elicit empathy. An exceptional literature student capable of deciphering implicit war references in a Louis Aragon love poem, she seems destined for academia. But studying isn’t the only thing on her mind. Anne and her besties, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), bolster one another’s brassieres with safety pins before hitting the club and flirting with boys. Anne fully owns the fact that certain girls shun her because she has a reputation for being easy.
Happening feels deliberately contemporary, implying that it could easily take place today—an astutely prescient choice by Diwan. Though the film isn’t devoid of period detail—the surf-music soundtrack and the payphone are dead giveaways—the hair, makeup, costumes, and production design don’t provide obvious signifiers. Angoulême, where Anne attends Cité Universitaire, is virtually indistinguishable from any present-day rural European community. Aesthetically, Laurent Tangy’s verité-style handheld camera brings the Dardennes to mind. What is meant to stand out as truly archaic, even if it sadly doesn’t, is how much of a taboo abortion was at the time of the film’s setting.
The film tracks the nine-week period in which Anne frantically seeks to end her pregnancy. Almost everyone she confides in shuts her down immediately upon learning her intentions, fearing severe punishment for any complicity. Doctors turn her away with stern admonitions. Hélène, who will dry hump a pillow until climax without hesitation, avoids any talk of abortion and coldly declares it “none of our business.” Instead of assisting, classmate Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein) sees the pregnancy as an entrée to initiate sex with Anne without consequence. As for the man actually responsible for Anne’s predicament, Maxime (Julien Frison) cares only about the acceptance of his high-society friends. Yet Anne can’t bring herself to broach the subject with those who genuinely seem to care, such as her mother (Sandrine Bonnaire) and prof (Pio Marmaï).
Realizing she’s utterly on her own, Anne takes increasingly desperate measures. First she pesters a doctor (François Loriquet), who prescribes an Estradiol shot for 20 francs to get her off his back, but it apparently works to strengthen the embryo. Eventually, Anne takes the matter into her own hands with a mirror and a knitting needle heated with a lighter, a process about which Diwan leaves nothing to the imagination, shot with graphic specificity and a tight closeup of Vartolomei’s contorted face. When that also fails, Anne gets a referral for Mrs. Rivière (Anna Mouglalis) to perform a costly back-alley abortion, which Anne finances by offloading her books and jewelry. Anne still doesn’t succeed, so she opts to risk her life for Mrs. Rivière to repeat the dangerous procedure.
Anne is so undeterred that she almost seems possessed. She exhibits the same level of drive and determination seen in Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in Election. We only get a glimpse of her vulnerability after girls in her residence hall slut-shame her in the communal shower and accuse her of carrying syphilis. But for Anne, her choices are liberty or death. Hélène says early on about herself that she’ll be operating a tractor the following year if she flunks the exam. Anne is resolved to continue her studies. She plainly explains to one of her doctors that if she were to give up her promising future for a child, she’d end up resenting the child for the rest of her life. So she risks her life, even if she could still end up spending it in a literal prison if she survives.
Diwan’s film won’t likely sway or change anyone’s mind, but it does faithfully render an unfortunately timely picture of what a woman’s life can be like with abortion outlawed. Those who never lived through that time firsthand will undoubtedly leave the theater with a more informed opinion, but the real reason Happening manages to be so persuasive is because it tells such a vivid, intimate and relatable story, whether as a viewer it has happened to you or someone in your life, or your biggest fear is that it will.