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HAPPENING (2021) review

August 31, 2022


written by: Marcia Romano and Audrey Diwan
produced by: Alice Girard and Edouard Weil
directed by: Audrey Diwan
rated: R (or disturbing material/images, sexual content and graphic nudity)
U.S. release date: April 5, 2022 (limited) & June 21, 2022 (digital & VOD)


No one is expecting a film revolving around abortion to be an unflinching and harrowing thriller, but here we are with “Happening”. After premiering last fall at the Venice Film Festival (where it won the Golden Lion award) and making its rounds around the festival circuit, the film from French director Audrey Diwan made its way to more viewers last spring and by and large the vast majority of the response was positive. They aren’t wrong. “Happening” is a challenging albeit absorbing watch, thanks to its powerful, open-eyed lead performance that carries the film with strength and grace, but also it’s eerie prescient timing.

Based on French writer Annie Ernaux’s 2000 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, “Happening” takes place in France circa 1963, a decade before abortion became legal there. This is a time when a woman could face jail time if the doctors deemed her condition an abortion, rather than a miscarriage. We eventually come to know this information after we meet the film’s protagonist, Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a bright twentysomething from a middle-class background studying literature at a liberal arts college with hopes of pursuing a career in writing.



As the film opens, Annie and her two friends, Hélène (Luàna Bajrami), Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro) can be seen adjusting each other’s bras and skirts, as they prepare for a night of going out to dance. They will meet their male friend, Jean (Kacey Mottet Klein), and hope for a night of good music and handsome boys. While Anne can be seen losing herself to the music on the dance floor, there is this underlying acknowledgement around her that women who have too much fun are liable to be deemed as “sluts” by other women or called “loose” by the men. Of course, the same perception would never be applied towards promiscuous men.

Although the friendships she has with Hélène and Brigitte seem good, we never see Anne having any deep conversations with them and it seems like she often feels a bit like an outsider around them. It’s unclear if this is because of what she’s been through, which is something they know nothing of or if she’s felt this way already. This can be seen when the girls are together in their dorm room as they talk openly about boys and sex. Brigitte even gives the girls a demonstration with a pillow that leads to a pleasurable climax. Cinematographer Laurent Tangy watches Anne closely (which she does so superbly and honestly throughout) as she watches her friends and you almost gather that she’s starting to feel a distance develop between her and her friends. No matter how much her friends talk about losing their virginity, they know they could get pregnant and the repercussions that come with it.

Pretty soon, Anne begins to feel abdominal pains and when she is examined by a doctor her fears are confirmed. “It’s impossible”, she tells him when the doctor informs her she is pregnant, after divulging to him that she has not had sex with anyone. Maybe that is a truth she has said enough times to her self that she now believes it. In a matter of seconds, Anne goes from denial and shame, to fear and determination. To Anne and many women of this time (and throughout time), being pregnant means your future is redirected – in this case, to that of a housewife – which means saying goodbye to any other hopes and dreams. Anne is determined to do whatever it takes to abort.

When Anne’s friends eventually realize what is happening, Hélène and Brigitte initially want nothing to do with it, knowing how their association could place them in jeopardy. Anne feels completely alone in her decision to terminate the pregnancy and feels the pressure and concern of time not being on her side. Another doctor had prescribed her medication which he stated would trigger menstruation, but that didn’t happen and her own dangerous DIY attempt failed. As her situation consumes her mental and emotional health, which causes her grades to suffer and finds her distanced from her mother (the great Sandrine Bonnaire “Vagabond”) and father (Eric Verdin). Anne is eventually directed to a secret location where one dour woman named Mme Rivière (Anna Mouglalis), who previously assisted a classmate, will perform a safe abortion, but even then the outcome isn’t certain.



While “Happening” is set in the past, there is nothing overtly 1960s about the production and that’s a deliberate decision made by Diwan and her crew. There’s nothing that necessarily cries out as nostalgia or that stands out as a specific language or location from decades ago. However, it does make sense to set the story in 1963 and not just because that’s the apparent setting in the novel. The setting provides us with a certain frame of mind and adds to the tension and pressure of Anne’s predicament. Granted, pregnancy isn’t in and of itself a predicament, but because this is set during a time when abortion is illegal and when women in academia are seeking something beyond domestication, we feel for Anne and her plight, especially when everyone else is afraid to get involved. Since getting an abortion, a woman’s right to choose, and access to safe healthcare, has been and continues to be an issue, “Happening” winds up feeling quite timeless unfortunately and especially relevant considering what has happened here in the States in 2022.

The men in “Happening” are unsurprisingly one-note and are the main characters who feel like they are of another time, from the doctors Anne encounters to her own peers. Diwan co-wrote the screenplay with Marcia Romano, and they never write the men as stereotypes, but rather they are characteristically one-note and seldom have any kind of character growth, save for Anne’s friend, Jean. We get the idea early on that he’s felt protective of Anne for some time, quiet possibly with an unrequited love. He’s comes through towards the end of the film by pointing Anne in the right direction of actual help, but that’s after he mistakes her request for help as a sexual advance. His cliched reasoning that there’s no harm seeing as how she’s already pregnant accentuates the already established cringe factor that weaves throughout the story.

Abortion is not an easy subject to discuss, much less watch a film that tackles it. It’s a subject we know is there in real life, but it’s hard to talk about…not just because of where people stand politically or religiously on the matter, but primarily because it’s ultimately a decision that only one woman should make. It should seem simple since it is her body, but when exterior ideologies are attached to that body, all context is lost. Traditionally in these stories, the man who got the woman pregnant is done being involved once a pregnancy has been announced, leaving the woman to “manage” it on her own. That’s what we see here, when Anne’s baby daddy makes a brief appearance. Whether she remains pregnant and gives birth or decides to have an abortion, Anne is forced to make a decision that will change her life, like so many other women.

“Happening” offers an unflinching look at Anne and her story and while the screenplay and direction are stellar, the film lives and breathes thanks to the powerful work from Vartolomei. It’s a predominately silent and internal performance that is absolutely riveting. You can’t watch this without imagining where she had to go internally to prepare for certain scenes. Indeed, an intimate trust between director and actor is obvious here. Diwan discovered the novel after having had an abortion herself, which lends to the film’s immersive, judgement-free quality. “Happening” is a hard watch albeit necessary and important watch.


RATING: ****




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