An unflinching account of a young woman trying to secure an abortion in 1960’s France, Happening is based on the novel L’evenement by Annie Ernaux. The book retells her own experiences, when she found herself pregnant in a country where terminations were illegal.
Reviewed by Helen Tope
Director Audrey Diwan introduces us to 18-year-old student Anne (a phenomenal Anamaria Vartolomei). She is evidently top of her literature class, impressing her tutor with a summary explanation of anaphora. Anne is not only clever, but ambitious. On a visit home, Anne’s mum gives her some money, encouraging her to “buy a novel”. Set a little apart from her friends Helene (Luana Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero), Anne seems destined to lead a less conventional life.
The film begins with the three friends making their way to a party. Anne peels away from the group, and begins a conversation with an older boy. Diwan leaves the rest of the evening blank, until we leap forward a few weeks, and watch Anne frantically write ‘rien’ in her diary. A visit to her doctor confirms her suspicions: she is pregnant. Abortion won’t be made legal in France until 1975, but Anne desperately tries her hand. She asks the doctor for help. He curtly replies that he has no wish to go to prison.
What begins is a frenetic race against time, as Anne also tries to hide her pregnancy from her friends and family. Anne’s world is imbued with a creeping sense of horror as the bump gradually becomes more visible. Diwan’s early, colourful depiction of teenage life gives way to a murky world of secret meetings and a jaded, exhausted Anne selling her books and jewellery to meet an abortionist’s fee.
Happening does not draw moral lines, but instead exposes the contradictions of this stage in France’s history. This is a France intellectually divided: traditional values still hold sway, while Anne and her friends eagerly discuss Jean Paul Sartre. The progressive ideas of the Sixties are yet to influence the provinces. For these teenagers, personal and intellectual freedom is always elsewhere.
In a story where choice is the central issue, Diwan’s placement of the camera hands autonomy of the story-telling process over to Anne. We are always following her: through a crowded dance hall, a school corridor. We peer over her shoulder during difficult moments of the film. How much we see – and don’t see – is carefully curated by Diwan. There is a protective quality in her direction, and it is impossible to watch Happening without forming an emotional reaction. Vartolomei is extraordinary in this film. Turning in a cool, measured performance, Vartolomei conveys the devastation of a life coming apart with absolute precision.
The timing of this film has ended up intersecting with contemporary events, with US state Kentucky recently announcing it would “completely and immediately” block access to abortions. Ernaux’s memoir, published in 2001, was meant to be a look back at a less informed era; a time and space we should never revisit. Happening, in making this point further, graphically details what happens when legalised terminations are not available.
Diwan’s bleak, cautionary tale fires a warning signal at those who would interrupt progress. As the politicisation of choice becomes a reality in America, Happening turns away from its fictitious roots and looks towards its source material. Ernaux’s first hand account is no longer a document of the past, but a glimpse of freedoms curtailed, opportunities wasted and innocence, cruelly lost.
In the cinema: Friday 20 – Thursday 26 May